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Emir Kusturica • Director and founder, Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival

“Küstendorf is a cultural Noah’s Ark to learn the craft of cinema”


- Cineuropa met up with director Emir Kusturica to discuss the concept behind his film and music festival held every year in the Serbian mountains

Emir Kusturica  • Director and founder, Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival
(© Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival)

Following the screening of his latest film, the Venice-awarded On the Milky Road [+see also:
film review
film profile
, and the subsequent workshop dedicated to this beautiful work at the tenth edition of the Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival, held in a village initially built for the shoot of his Life Is a Miracle, which has now been converted into a local and international cultural hotspot as well as being an economic booster for the mountainous region of Zlatibor, Serbia (read the article), Cineuropa met up with Emir Kusturica to discuss his desire to pass on his craft and his impressions on what it means today. The director, one of the few to have been crowned twice at Cannes, describes the practical and epistemological changes he has seen in cinema over the years, and elaborates on the cinema-versus-reality paradigm, emphasising the architectural approach that making artistic cinema thus entails.

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Cineuropa: You are well known for your attachment to your roots, be they cinematic or otherwise. At which point in your life did you feel the need to turn to the future – that is, to catch the egg freshly dropped by the hen (to use an image present in your new film) and pass it on to young, aspiring directors in the form of an egg-shaped award?
Emir Kusturica:
The moment when I found myself in a position to intensively start remembering what came before is also when I felt I had to somehow institutionalise my idea of what the future could be, and that is how Küstendorf was born, and I think this was a good move: ten years on, I find that our eggs have been hatching, producing some good auteurs (such as Edoardo De Angelis, Kohki Hasei...). Big festivals are too judgemental and market-driven to contribute to helping young people. Here, we try to activate the power of young people and enjoy the good movies that they do make, but which are seldom seen. I find them much more sincere, much more powerful than the movies made with the prospect of becoming part of the commercial world.

In the beginning, we received 250 short films; now the number has risen to 500, and the films are getting better and better. From that batch, our very dedicated selection team – made up of knowledgeable, pure film lovers who operate without any imposed structure, be it ideological or otherwise – pick 20 to 40 titles. Outside of the honours system, with its red carpets, we are trying to create a community, a sort of cultural Noah’s Ark, navigating through the hurricane of time in six days.

How has making cinema and learning to do so changed since your own period of training at FAMU in Prague in the 1970s?
A fragmentation of cinema as an artistic entity has occurred. On one hand, there is Hollywood and the industry, always keeping on top of the most advanced technological experiments and ready to spend huge amounts of money with the aim to entertain, not to make you think or believe. Then there is auteur cinema, which is not glorified like it used to be in the 1960s or 1970s. At that time, we had gurus (Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Tarkovsky) who inspired us and who established the parameters of what we called quality, whereas now, that parameter has to do with the project as an event, not something that is deeply rooted in a philosophy – which is not to say that artistic cinema is not still being made. So, we are now squeezed in between these two patterns and are trying to find a compromise between the philosophy of the 1970s, and modernity, art and amusement. 

During the workshop you held, you spoke about cinema versus reality – a topic that Sorrentino also brought up when he was here, as we saw in the opening-gala retrospective clip. Has that been a recurring subject over ten years of workshops?
I would even go so far as to say that understanding how to translate reality into film has been the most crucial subject – the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers (Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, etc) explored it thoroughly in their time. Now, young people do not distinguish between what is filmed and what we are surrounded by and call real life. Sorrentino may have been exaggerating in calling what he was doing “fake”, but it is important to understand that the moment you start changing the angle, using artificial light and putting it one way or the other, choosing a lens size 50 instead of a 25 or an 18, or editing scenes, everything is changed. What you are showing can be powerful, it can be organic, but it is not real.

Today, reality is constantly projected through YouTube, but it doesn’t mean that it is realistic. The simple fact that somebody was using a certain lens and making certain choices, excluding the rest from the film, immediately tears it away from reality. It is really important for young people to know that.

The arrival of new technologies, such as VR (which literally eliminates the frame), may be blurring the boundary.
Yes, and this is why aspiring directors need to understand that cinema has to do with architecture. The viewer doesn’t have to know that – what counts is what he or she feels – but the driving force behind what we call independent filmmaking, besides all the specific elements that make up a film, is your standpoint, which determines how you see things and how you choose the way you want to show them. Playing with cinema as a means of expression is constructing a special architecture, your own architecture, rather than imitating what you see. Many extremely talented writers have tried to take a camera and failed to use it, and that’s because cinema is a craft that needs to be learned.

A former Soviet director came here some years ago to give a cinema lesson on how to make a situation cinematic. He took the example of someone receiving the news of a family member’s death, a woman who was busy gardening when she was informed of it and just looked at the guy and continued working, then came into the house and mopped the floor and prepared dinner, and then took a shower – and just then, at the end of the day, she stopped and realised that her mother had died and started crying. In real life, you might cry immediately, but on film, to stir up an emotion, you need to build up the tension for the audience – in this case, to extend time to give the situation a stronger impact than in reality. A director needs to work with time and space, also taking into account biological time and real time. Learning the architecture-like craft of cinema, and for me passing it on, is therefore essential. I have always liked the idea that I can make young directors’ lives easier by giving them shortcuts, methods I have tried and tested, and I like to think that in most cases, it does help.

Isn’t part of the art of cinema finding out on one’s own what to do with the camera and how to produce an image?
That doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch, as no one comes devoid of any archetype or pattern. You know, I have always wondered about what makes it possible for birds to build a nest without having previously been shown how to do it. In the same way, our experiences and emotions are deeply connected with the element of catharsis, anchored in patterns that date way back to Ancient Greece, strong parameters that the audience carry with them when they go to the movies, like the birds when they build their nest. It is therefore something that a good director has to know how to play with (even if it is to question these patterns). And this is what we teach here.

Do you miss limitations and constraints in a world that offers so many – maybe too many – choices?
Absolutely. For instance, I have a friend who used to write much better scripts under a regime with stricter rules. (...) It is a good thing that we have so many ways to bring movies to people’s attention – mobile phones, any internet connection, the cinema and so on – but it means that we really need to concentrate on the fact that the public needs to be driven, to be led by you, not just be impressed by you, and this is a very demanding task.

What do you wish for Küstendorf in the next ten years?
We will always try to improve our concept, by all means, but I would also like to have the next ten years not go as fast as the last ten went.

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