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VENICE 2018 Out of Competition

Emir Kusturica • Director

“Pepe’s life is like something from Taxi Driver


- VENICE 2018: We talked to Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica about his warm new documentary El Pepe, a Supreme Life, dedicated to Uruguay’s former president José Mujica

Emir Kusturica  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

In El Pepe, a Supreme Life [+see also:
film review
interview: Emir Kusturica
film profile
, presented out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, aided by fragments of Costa-Gavras’ 1972 political drama State of Siege, Emir Kusturica looks at the phenomenon of José “Pepe” Mujica – probably Uruguay’s most popular politician of all time, and yet a rather unassuming presence.

Cineuropa: José Mujica had some fairly modest living conditions – not quite what we are used to when it comes to ex-politicians.
Emir Kusturica: Many years ago, I was in France, and someone told me there was a president who drove a tractor. I saw the pictures and said: “This is my next movie.” He is probably the only one in the whole world who is not corrupt. He gives his salary away to lower the poverty line. In the film, he says that when you are chosen by the majority, you have to live like the majority – not the elite. He accepts all that’s needed to improve society.

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Throughout his life, “Pepe” was a former guerrilla: he was kidnapping people, robbing banks, fighting fascists, and then he studied in prison, ultimately becoming the Minister of Agriculture, Prime Minister and the 40th President of Uruguay. He was kept in captivity for 13 years and was moved from one place to another without ever being registered as a prisoner. When I saw all of these people crying when he was leaving office, I was stunned. Things got so crazy that I almost broke my leg trying to get a good shot. It was as if the Rolling Stones had suddenly come to town.

Why did you decide to also focus on his wife, current Uruguayan Vice-President Lucía Topolansky?
Lucía is the biggest secret in his life. When they met, she was forging papers for the guerrilla fighters. They were separated for years, and she talks about how you think about this other person when they are away and how such affection helps. In his case, militant politics and love always went hand in hand. It’s funny because when I finally came to see them, I found out she had already read my two books. “We had to understand who we are going to meet,” she said.

Making this film took you almost five years. Do you understand now what it was that made him so beloved among the people?
I don’t know how to make movies quickly, and in this sense, I don’t really follow today’s trends. But I think it was Guy de Maupassant who said that if one day Paris were destroyed, it could always be reconstructed from his books. I would like to think I am doing the same thing in my movies because there is this sense of time in all of them.

The thing is, you don’t just stop being president and still expect people to treat you like a pop star. It doesn’t happen. But it certainly did with “Pepe”, and I think it was because of his ability to compromise. He was an anarchist, and then he ended up as this good spirit. When you look at his life, it’s almost like something straight from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Were you surprised by his sense of humour? Many politicians try to be funny and usually fall flat, but not him, happily telling you that now that our phones have cameras, they should have built-in bathrooms as well.
Yes, for the prostate patients [laughs]. He has two, almost bipolar, reactions to the world. When someone in the film starts saying something he doesn’t like, he reacts, but he also likes to joke and say funny things. That’s probably his life goal – making life easy. After all he has been through, all you can do is either laugh or go crazy. Actually, I was lucky that we managed to find this one guy who doesn’t seem to agree with his politics. They love him so much that it’s almost cheesy.

Still, I assume it wasn’t that easy to make the film, given certain aspects of his early life as a guerrilla fighter?
He is like a Baruch Spinoza from Uruguay: he encourages you to look for God in nature, but yes, he is still controversial. When I was looking for financing, some people said: “How can we support a film about a man who used to rob banks?” I am getting very sceptical about the future of the world, and especially about Latin America – just look at Lenín Moreno, the President of Ecuador, saying that Julian Assange is not welcome in their embassy any more. But “Pepe” is an isolated case and, as I say in the movie, supreme. There is a reason why Uruguay used to be called the “Switzerland of South America”. When all that’s happening now makes you depressed, at least you have this one example of a successful society.

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