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Emir Kusturica • Founder and director, Kustendorf Film & Music Festival

“Making a movie is similar to entering a casino”


- We chatted to filmmaker Emir Kusturica about this year’s edition of his Kustendorf Film & Music Festival, a kind of winter film school for emerging talents

Emir Kusturica  • Founder and director, Kustendorf Film & Music Festival

Cineuropa sat down with Emir Kusturica in Drvengrad, home of the Kustendorf Film & Music Festival (13-18 January), conceived as a kind of winter film school for emerging talents. Sitting in his library, which is filled with recent fiction titles (Zadie Smith and Yuval Noah Harari), old prayer books and a few editions of his memoirs, we talked about whether it’s possible to teach someone how to be a good filmmaker and whether luck is a necessary ingredient in the process.

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Cineuropa: It’s the 13th edition of the festival, which you opened by painting a wooden black cat white in order to bring everyone good fortune. Is luck important in filmmaking?
Emir Kusturica:
Making a movie is similar to entering a casino: there are three possible ways do it. You can take a classical – Ancient Greek or Shakespearean – text as the basis of your script and film it. The second way is when you have an “ok” script, which can result in great movie, if you’re lucky. By that I mean that you have the requisite talent to lead 50-60 people in a very tribal way and you have great communication skills. The third way is the most common, with the destiny of a movie being designed by its producers, whose authority, money and everything else oozes from every line of dialogue.

Which of these cases applies to you?
None of them. I was a darling of cinema in the 1990s, and I had a lot of opportunities to prove that I knew how to make films, but I always needed time – probably as much time as a writer needs to pen a novel. Today, there is a necessity to be cheap and quick. People have projects, not films. If you want to be a real cinema auteur, you should make ten or 20 movies, not just have one or two projects. When I was winning at all of these festivals, I was in the right place at the right time, and I was exploring the right themes.

That sounds a lot like luck to me.
No; it was intuition. I had a sense of the collapsing communism, and I made a film that wasn’t anti-communist, unlike in your country, Poland, where Andrzej Wajda, whom I consider to be one of the top European directors ever, made Man of Marble, which was a very serious tale. I saw communists as funny people, and that’s how I showed them. I would never have guessed that Underground could be an award-winning film. However, I knew the scale of the story and the metaphor. My point is that you could make a masterpiece, but it may not get the exposure it deserves, unless time gives you the chance. When communism is falling and you make a “communist” film, you are not going to succeed. But if you find an angle that describes the process and show how you see that fracture, that’s much better.

Can you teach someone to think like that? We’re talking in Kustendorf, which you designed as a winter film school.
If someone doesn’t awaken that sense in themselves on their own, you can’t make them. But you could give them some directions. Most schools in the past – in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the UK – were different from each other, but they had one great thing in common: they had people telling students how to make a movie. They may have had great ideas, but they didn’t operate within the craft, and that’s typical today – most films are born like this. People don’t know the craft and they don’t develop their own film language, so they can’t forge a long career or make many movies.

I’ve heard you want to make a film about Genghis Khan.
It’s an almost-impossible movie: it’s too expensive, and I don’t want to make it in English. Genghis Khan is such an intriguing character. The script is based on a novel by Chingiz Aitmatov. When Genghis Khan was on his way to Europe, his camp was so big that he forbade his tribe from reproducing. Not from having sex, but from having babies, as there were already too many people on the move. His close ally, a lieutenant, had a child with a woman who sewed flags for Khan. Many people in the camp helped them hide the kid, but it was eventually discovered. The lieutenant was sentenced to death, but Genghis Khan loved him so much that he wanted to spare him and gave him a chance to save his life – just like Pontius Pilate offered to Jesus. “Just tell me you didn’t do it, and you’ll be ok,” he said. Genghis Khan’s morality made him kill his friend, but after that, he wasn’t himself any more. He left his army and his invasion of Europe to his son to take care of. It was quite the Shakespearean dilemma.

Dilemmas are sometimes easier to solve when someone gives you good advice. If you could talk to your younger self, what would you say?
“Don’t care so much.” But then again, if I’d accepted that advice as a young man, I wouldn’t have achieved all that I have.

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