Cigarettes, Accordions and Movies in Serbia

I just returned from Serbia, where my husband, MM Publisher Tim Rhys, and I attended a strange and fascinating film festival at the home and “personal village” of famed Serbian auteur moviemaker, musician and actor, Emir Kusturica, deep in the mountains of the Mokra Gora region near Bosnia.

As I sit here in Los Angeles, wide awake at 5 a.m., I realize it’s two in the afternoon in Serbia; after just one week my body apparently began to adjust to Serbian time and sensibilities because I am usually not wide awake at this hour craving pork and pilsner. It all seems like some surreal dream straight out of a Kusturica movie that we were in a world of moody mountains and accordion music just a few hours ago…

The third incarnation of the Küstendorf Film and Music Festival ended last evening with what I’m sure was a rocking, sweaty performance by Emir Kusturica’s famous “No Smoking Orchestra,” which I’m sorry we didn’t get to see. Kusturica, who intimates that he makes more money from his music and acting than he does from his moviemaking, has long been one of my favorite moviemakers. He’s one of the last true auteurs—a great artist whose films Black Cat, White Cat and Time of the Gypsies are two that I admire most. The truth is, though, I like anything he does. His movies are not for everyone and his patented brand of “magic realism” did not play as successfully with 1993’s Arizona Dreams, his lone foray into Hollywood that served to galvanize him as a studio outsider. But if you enjoy the absurd and have the ability to lose yourself through a concentrated suspension of disbelief that can transport you in the way that children are transported by a good fairytale, then I recommend the Kusturica oeuvre as alternately a rollicking good time and a complex and melancholy look at cultural reality/political history/social problems/psychological portraits and loosely defined animal husbandry practices of the Balkans, particularly the former Yugoslavia.

Emir Kusturica and MovieMaker‘s Tim Rhys

Kusturica has created this festival in a historic Serbian ethno-village, Drvngrad, nicknamed Küstendorf, that he built as a set for one of his movies (Life is a Miracle) and then turned into his personal home as well as a rustic tourist resort and national park. Küstendorf is a play on his nickname, “Küsta,” and also means “village by the sea” in German, which it plainly is not. Absurd, and apparently meant to be some dig at his government for their attitudes toward the Germans at the time that he built it a few years ago. As despot of this tiny kingdom of little wooden houses, cobblestone streets named after rebel heroes like Nikola Tesla, Federico Fellini and Che Guevara, a few restaurants and bars, some kittens and happy little dogs, an indoor swimming pool and incredible, timeless views of the misty, moody mountains and humble little homesteads in the valley below he has managed to pack it over the last three years with lots of young, mostly Eastern European moviemakers, journalists from all over Europe, the “Cannes mafia” and a few high profile lefty Hollywood rogues, like Jim Jarmusch and Oliver Stone in the past, and Johnny Depp and Ralph Fiennes this year.

It was an excellent program, with an interesting, sometimes claustrophobic scene of stylish people jammed elbow-to-elbow in the theater, the restaurant and bars while accordion music seemed to play incessantly and nearly everyone chainsmoked in all venues as if they were their own little personal nicotine factory smokestacks. Pork, potatoes and cabbage were featured at every meal, as well as beer and slivovic at most. Slivovic is plum brandy that you could strip your furniture with, which you drink out of little shot containers shaped like lab beakers. I love Eastern Europe.

I love the “absurd and the irreverent.” This phrase was actually uttered by Johnny Depp in a workshop that he gave at the festival, but it rang so true for me, and is so appropriate for this festival that I wrote it down and it’s been ringing in my head ever since. Kusturica is a master of the absurd and irreverent, which seem to veritably breed in the Balkans, along with accordions and cigarettes. The opening night band, a Slovenian and Austrian group called Global Kryner, covered some local favorites as well as “Proud Mary,” “Like a Virgin” and “Bésame Mucho” in the Austrian folk tradition with an accordion (of course), trumpet, trombone, guitar, clarinet and hot lead singer babe. It was absurd and wonderful.

We unfortunately had to leave before Kusturica’s band, The No Smoking Orchestra (which is the most absurdly ironic name of a band ever), rocked the house for the final ceremony. Overall I found the Küstendorf Film and Music Festival to be a really stimulating and artistically inspiring event, in a melancholy and beautiful part of the world.

I traveled in Eastern Europe extensively about 10 years ago, but couldn’t get into parts of the former Yugoslavia with an American passport at that time, so this trip filled in some of my missing passport stamps and refreshed my sense of place to that region. A few other fun Americanized observations from the former Eastern bloc that were reinforced for me this time were the unnerving fact that although people there really are very friendly, helpful and kind, smiling is not widely practiced, but staring is. As soon as help is requested or a question is asked though the somber mask will be broken and people bend over backwards in helpful kindness. And many Eastern European women really are very hot, or even if they’re not that hot they really know how to dress so that men won’t notice that. Many Eastern European men, on the other hand, are really big and tall and often (to put it kindly) more rough and scary looking and have a habit of wearing their pants up around their ribcages, yet they nevertheless always seem to have these really hot babes on their arms, making them perhaps some of the luckiest men in the world.

Also, as our cab driver explained to us, Serbian salaries are amongst the lowest in Europe, but still every cafe, restaurant, bar and club are full from morning to, well, the next morning because parties start late and go all night, any night of the week there. As he said, “Serbs live like today is the last day on earth.” A short, cold, gray, inebriated day, perhaps, but one filled with lots of passion, music and cigarettes. And really, who can begrudge you some cigarettes, passion and music if they help to lighten the tortured Slavic soul? As a different cab driver explained to us, “Serbs never forgive and never forget,” and that’s a hard way to live through thousands of years of wars and occupations and broken alliances and broken dreams. Serbia is hopefully on its way toward dealing with some of the horrible events of the past two decades, joining the European Union and improving its economy. I hope Serbia can change in the ways that it needs to… but not so much that its soul loses any of the beauty, just some of the torture. MM

Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival ran from January 13-19, 2010. 

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