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.

Tarkovsky must be laughing somewhere.

As I crawled into my theater chair at 11am—with blues guitarist Ana Popovic on one side and my new student filmmaker friend, Isabel, on the other, the miracle of Andrei Rublev began projecting brightly on the screen. I nudged Isabel.  “I made the mistake of writing after the concert last night. Didn’t sleep until 4 a.m. If I start to snore, please feel free to punch me the ribs.” She seemed to understand, but looked equally tired. I appeared to be on my own. I pulled out a half-eaten package of grape Mentos and prayed for stamina.

Austrian Student filmmakers of Erdbeerland, director Florian Pochlatko and actresses, Kaja Zitter and Resi Reiner.

Austrian Student filmmakers of Erdbeerland, director Florian Pochlatko and actresses, Kaja Zitter and Resi Reiner.

Seeing Tarkovsky’s masterwork on the big screen is truly a gift.  From the opening moments you are elevated and destroyed on the tenuous balloon of human hope…a testament to man’s aspiration to rise to the heights of divinity by his own hand.  As the Russian classic continued to unfold, I felt the velvet hammer of my own foolishness bludgeoning me. The Great Creator was revealing how mortal I was.  I looked over at Isabel.  She had leaned over and peacefully joined the choir of the semi-conscious. By the time we reached intermission, it was clear that I, too, needed more time to recover. To my shame, I wandered back down the slippery wooden steps of Küstendorf to my cabin—and the hope of redemption later in the day.

The main event on this day was a screening of Words with Gods, a new film featuring nine short stories on faith. Directed by some of the world’s most celebrated international filmmakers, this 134 minute revelation explores a wide spectrum of spiritual beliefs. Ranging from Aboriginal Spirituality to Atheism, this film should be seen by everyone, regardless of religious persuasion. For the second time in a week, I was reduced to tears by the humanity and spirit of these inventions. Whether it was Hideo Nakata’s Shinto Buddhist meditation on death and spiritual loss in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami or Alex de la Iglesia’s brilliant Catholic vision of unexpected redemption, the weight and beauty of this film is undeniable. The following Q&A with directors Emir Kusturica, Warwick Thornton, Bahman Ghobadi and Producer Alex Garcia was equally illuminating. As each of them spoke about the film and ideas on faith, it was evident that tolerance and open-heartedness were the guiding lights behind this courageous and beautiful project.

The student competition continued forward this afternoon with five more contestants. Hailing from Russia, Austria, France, Hungary and Switzerland, the young filmmakers were introduced individually and applauded as a group. Again, it was a mixed offering with three dramas, one animation and a documentary. As with yesterday, two films stood out to me. It will be interesting to see the how the judges decide as we head into the last three days.

Director Warwick Thorton comments on his short film during the Words with Gods' workshop.

Director Warwick Thornton comments on his short film during the Words with Gods’ workshop.

Today also saw the arrival of Alfonso Cuaron, the Oscar-winning director of Gravity.  He’ll be screening and discussing his film Children of Men tomorrow and holding a Q&A / workshop afterwards. By chance, I ran into him at The Damned Yard Cafe before the concert and he gave me a few minutes of his time. As the light was iffy where we stood, and I wasn’t exactly packing a pro camera, he allowed me to position him in a lighted booth for a few shots. Perhaps the last time I will ever “direct” an Oscar-winner.

The closure of Friday evening brought Russian violin virtuoso, Alena Baeva, to the Noam Chomsky amphitheater. By all accounts, the performance was an exercise in musical brilliance. Sadly, I was not there to witness it, due to deadline and my own poor time management. I vow to discover her work soon and listen to what I should have witnessed for myself.

Although disappointed to miss the concert, I managed to make it back to the cafe around 2 a.m. to party down with the packed house of filmmakers, guests and staff. Of all the revelries I’ve been to, this one truly took the cake. Serbian beer flowed and smiles were all around as the crowd danced the night away. By 5 a.m., the whole room felt like old friends…a fitting reminder of the authenticity and unique nature of this truly special festival.

A special performance by the singing stars of the short film, Merry-go-round.

A special performance by the singing stars of the short film, Merry-go-round.

Halfway Done: Six Memorable Items from Küstendorf 2015

1.  The soundtrack of Küstendorf. Whether it’s the blues, reggae and soul music that pours out of the speakers everywhere—or the live performances in The Damned Yard – the music isn’t just for the end of the day. It’s everywhere.
2.  Being pegged in the head by falling debris from the brilliant opening night fireworks. Completely unexpected and totally inspiring.
3.  Andrei Konchalovsky’s simple but brilliant observations during his Q&A for The Postman’s White Nights. After speaking on the beauty of quiet moments, he exhorted the audience to be silent for 10 minutes before leaving. While it didn’t happen, his point was well-taken.
4.  The inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm of the student filmmakers. Thanks to the 24/7 open policy at The Damned Yard Cafe, and the pervading spirit of Serbian welcoming – the party in Küstendorf never stops.
5.  Being visited by the small contingent of cats that roam the grounds. As in Emir’s brilliant comic film, Black Cat, White Cat, our feline friends are always watching. I’ve heard that giving them a scratch will give you good luck at winning a Küstendorf Egg prize.
6.  During the Words with Gods Q&A, the power to lights and sound suddenly shorted out in a hiss of electrical violence and acrid smoke.  Not missing a beat, Emir Kusturica uttered to the audience “God must be angry!”  Power was soon restored—to the credit of the staff. MM

Stay tuned for more blog entries from the Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival. Visit the festival’s official website here.

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