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.


Küstendorf founder and Serbian director/musician Emir Kusturica is perched like a hawk on a fence. From his elevated spot in the amphitheater, he’s watching the band rehearse on stage one last time before the opening night festivities. Blanketed in the perpetual cold fog that hangs over the grounds, he is listening to the sound and watching the movement of the performers. Like any good director, when something needs attention he calls it out, pointing and giving instruction. He makes his adjustments…then it’s ready. The crowd is growing now. Warmly dressed attendees stand in clusters, smoking cigarettes, taking pictures and waiting for the big moment.

Kusturica, the big man himself

Emir Kusturica, the big man himself, at the Küstendorf festival.

To say that Opening Night at Küstendorf is a big deal is somewhat of an understatement. While I’ve only been here two days, the energy and enthusiasm for the beginning of this festival is infectious. Expectations are high. Everyone is excited to get going and tonight it all begins with a bang.

As the bundled masses settle into the stands, the nervous energy dissipates, and the band begins to play. The assembled ensemble roars to life with a mixture of eastern and western musicality. The chime of a hammered dulcimer blends seamlessly into the visceral power of the horn section—much like the mix of Slavic and English conversation that is heard everywhere.

Moments after the band has finished its opening number, Emir emerges onstage with a rolled red carpet over his shoulder, followed by Serbian Minister of Culture, Ivan Tasovac. As a symbolic and humorous gesture, Emir rolls out the red carpet for his friend—playing to the informality and lack of pretense that Küstendorf has become known for. The festival was now officially open, and it was time bring it on home.

As witnessed in yesterday’s rehearsal, the theme from Rocky erupts from the stage. An actor dressed like the Italian Stallion jogs in front of the musicians, jabbing at the air and pumping up the crowd. “Adrian!” he yells to the assembled. A line of female singers gets up next and exhorts the audience in Serbian. Spotlights flood the area with artificial moonlight. A live wolf is brought out in front of the stage, and recorded howling pierces the night. The sound of a train is heard in the distance. Suddenly, around the corner, a prop steam engine train—powered by people— emerges and then grinds to a halt, frozen by the call of the wolf. It’s a mirror image of the festival’s thematic poster. Suddenly, the sky explodes with brilliant fireworks. The audience responds with thunderous applause.

That’s how you get things started, folks.


Festival-goers wander in a wintry Serbian reverie

Following the crackling debut Emir directs trumpet extraordinaire, Adam Stinga, to lead the audience down to the Noam Chomsky amphitheater for the opening night film—Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Postman’s White Nights. It’s a mad rush to the standing room only screening and Q&A with legendary director. The film is an epic tribute to the human condition and made me weep five times with its stolen moments of silence and contemplative vision. I was overwhelmed and full of a joy that I haven’t felt for some time.

Following the screening, I moved upstairs to the cafe to commiserate with some student filmmakers I had met earlier in the day. We were all greatly moved, and marveled at the community and general flow of things.


Student filmmakers Isabel Lamberti, Jakob Beurle, and Robert Windisch show off their credentials.

The evening wrapped up with more incredible music. Adam Stinga and the Novi Sad Big Band electrified the night with parade of cinematic themes and jazz-infused arrangements. I had the biggest grin plastered on my face as they peeled through their set. The only word I could muster….BRAVO!

In the end…I was overwhelmed. In was only the first day, and I had been reduced to tears of joy. 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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