Revered by critics but generally ignored by publishers, two-time Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica is finally the subject of critical studies. Dina Iordanova’s offering is the fourth in a series of eponymous titles from the BFI called World Directors, others including Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Yash Chopra and Lars von Trier. (Wallflower Press has also published a volume on Kusturica in their ‘Directors’ Cuts series.)
With directors such as Kusturica, who inspire such a devout fanbase and arouse such strong passions, the question is whether Iordanova can remain impartial. In the introduction she sets out her aim to be ‘balanced and fair’, and opens with a biographical account of the director’s background entitled ‘The Man’. Crucially, she starts off by clarifying Kusturica’s religious and ethnic roots – he was brought up in a secular Bosnian Muslim household. But once the Balkan conflict erupted, he subsequently sided with the Serbs (who officially stood for Yugoslav unity) and, with his second Palme d’Or winning film Underground (1995), the director declared he was fighting for a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. But this was not just a political whim on Kusturica’s part – his ancestors were Serbian, forced to convert to Islam after the Ottoman invasion. Iordanova’s discussion of Underground offers views unlikely to have been read in the western press – in order to defend himself against allegations that Serbia was trying to use his film as propaganda Kusturica was forced to sell a less political image of himself and his film. By compromising, the director saved his career even though, as Iordanova explains, ‘shifting loyalties are an ongoing process for Kusturica’.
Iordanova also details the film-maker’s youth growing up in a Sarajevo suburb, where he hung out with the Havjani – street vagabonds. Kusturica used some of these friends in his early films and to this day considers hanging out with his buddies (the director is also a member of a rock group, No Smoking Orchestra) more important than film-making. Kusturica not only lives the life but, canny and media savvy, deliberately creates this image of the ‘Havjan film-maker’. As Iordanova points out, ‘this man’s character is so abundant and contradictory that it is nearly impossible to balance all aspects’.
But the book is not just about the man, it is about the films as well, and in the second chapter Iordanova categorises his films several ways. First she divides them into periods: early (Sarajevo shorts and TV features, which, as Kusturica trained at Prague’s FAMU school are heavily influenced by Czech cinema); the Sarajevo films (Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985)); and what Kusturica calls his ‘Grandiloquent Frescoes’ (films from Time of the Gypsies (1989) onwards). Then she looks at them thematically – the coming of age films (Dolly Bell, Gypsies, Arizona Dream (1993)); collisions of history and individual fate (Father, Underground); and gypsy films (Gypsies and Black Cat, White Cat (1998)). It’s readable and interesting even if in the – highly probable – event you haven’t seen all the films. She pays tribute to the director’s mercurial and anarchic imagination which results in recurring themes of telekinesis, flying fish or people, weddings galore and other fantastical scenarios.
Iordanova’s critique works less well when attempting to describe the films themselves, although this is probably due more to the convoluted nature of Kusturica’s plots than her writing. At times she attempts to describe a narrative that even she admits ‘frequently comes close to falling apart’.
Two further chapters look at ‘The Artistry’ and ‘The Ideology’ and although extensively researched, these are less successful, with some obscure subheadings such as ‘Layers of Occurrences’, ‘Dichotomies of Locale’ and ‘Oneirism’, and some repetitive chapters of influences: ‘From Yugoslav Cinema’, ‘From Czech Cinema’, ‘From Russian Cinema’, ‘From French Cinema’ and so on. In the chapter on Ideology, Iordanova blames the frustratingly major omission of Kusturica’s view on Romanies on ‘space limitations’. With Kusturica currently at work on another gypsy epic (neither an adaptation of The White Hotel or Crime and Punishment – two projects pinpointed by Iordanova as long-cherished dreams of the director) the wisdom of this exclusion is moot. Still, any study of Kusturica is long overdue. As Iordanova points out, this unique film-maker, ‘has set an example that will be willingly followed by all those who believe auteurism still has a chance in cinema’.