The Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival takes place every January in the fairy tale town of Drvengrad, up high on a Serbian mountain, presided over by the charismatic, visionary Emir Kusturica.

A fixture on our Coolest Film Festivals in the World list, we have a blast every time we attend the funky, strange fest. This year, Greg Hamilton is blogging his adventures daily from Serbia over Küstendorf’s run, January 21-26.

The morning has come too soon and I am paying for my sins. My eyes are bloodshot and my corpus smells like the ashtray of a Serbian taxi. Forgive me, Emir, for I am a wreck. I finished my story early yesterday and decided to stay out late with the younger set until 5 a.m. As much as I enjoyed the wild dancing and revelry of last night at The Damned Yard, I have officially crossed over that fine line.

I frightened the housekeeper by still being in my room at 11 a.m. — in my wretched, parboiled state. Realizing that the show must go on, I limped to the bathroom to begin my morning ritual. To my delight, I discovered that the shower head had been upgraded since yesterday. Instead of spraying sideways and forward — necessitating an indelicate dance to avoid flooding my shower curtainless bathroom — the pressure was fully in one direction and strong as Turkish coffee.


MM festival correspondent, Greg Hamilton, on location in Küstendorf.

It’s these small, magical moments that make life in Küstendorf complete.

I am sitting at an empty press table now, in the Visconti restaurant. Across the room, Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron and his family are celebrating his young son’s birthday. Their yellow cake has relighting candles — and relaxed, well-rested smiles are all around.

Not at my table. At my table is a haggard writer attempting to collect himself, while deftly avoiding the consumption of anything smoked.

Coffee, water, orange juice, eggs. Breathe in and out. Repeat.

Marko, a burley Küstendorf staff member, sees my plight and commiserates. “You are not the only one, my friend.”

My track record for seeing films is starting to decay. In light of my sleep-deprived condition, I’ve opted out of the early screenings of Konchalovsky’s Maria’s Lovers, and a new offering from Mexico, The Hamsters. I feel bad about it, but choose to relax, walk the grounds and steel myself for the afternoon programs.


A special gift for Alfonso Cuaron from Festival Director, Emir Kusterica.

Aside from the student competition, the main event for today was a special screening of Children of Men with director Alfonso Cuaron. Having only seen this film on DVD, the theatrical presentation was a reminder of the importance of the big-screen experience. Children of Men is a visceral film that demands your attention with its pulse-pounding action and political tension. Cuaron’s cinematic vision and sense for dystopian material makes this the best kind of intelligent thriller. Following the screening, Cuaron spent an hour talking with the moderator and audience about his vision as a filmmaker, as well as the path leading to Children of Men and his Oscar-winning directorial work on Gravity. He also encouraged the student filmmakers to stick to their vision, but learn the art of creative compromise that is often necessary in the filmmaking world.

Day three of the student competition brought entries from Iceland, Slovakia, Egypt and Israel. The field of excellence is growing, as three of these four are strong competitors and build on the talent base of international cinema on display. Whether it be a variation on Anton Chekov or a documentary exploration of declining town and its colorful residents, the variety of subject matter and maturity of these young filmmakers is impressive.

Advice from Küstendorf:

1.  The exchange rate here is generous. Bring only what you need as I’ve struggled to spend more than $10 a day between coffee and beer. The gift shop near the entrance provides a last venue to expend all those extra Serbian Dinars you may have.

2.  Watch your step. Küstendorf is built on a mountain and is made largely of stone and wood. When it’s cold out, the maze of steep stairways tends to be slick. Take it slow and easy to avoid tumbling into the Serbian landscape.

3.  Pace yourself. Have fun, but be forgiving if you can’t make it to every screening. There is much to discover in this place, and it isn’t all on the screen.


Waiting for Alfonso Cuaron in the Noam Chomsky amphitheater.

4.  Bring a fresh set of clothes to wear home. If you enjoy hanging at the cafe or restaurant, everything you wear will smell of cigarettes. Smoking is permitted most places inside the main building, and many of the international attendees dig their tobacco.

5.  Don’t forget to bring your swim suit. While snow is falling outside, you can enjoy the wonderful pool and adjoining spa. MM

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