The 12th annual Küstendorf Film and Music Festival opened with a flourish in the form of a 50-piece Moldovan orchestra.

That was followed by a troupe of actors portraying acrobatic, egg-laying hens and a juggling trapeze-artist rooster. But these kinds of disorienting spectacles are standard fare at Küstendorf, the brainchild of Sarajevo-born director Emir Kusturica. And visitors to the festival, held in the Serbian mountaintop village of Mećavnik, could at times wonder whether they had accidentally strayed onto the set of a Federico Fellini (or, for that matter, a Kusturica) film.

Küstendorf is an event where Serbian and Balkan culture greets the world, and it is centered on a competition of short films by new directors, this year representing views from places as far-flung as Kurdistan, South Africa, Turkey, the Philippines, Cuba, Mexico, Germany, Norway, and, of course, Eastern Europe and Russia.

The Contemporary Trends section of Küstendorf often looks to Cannes and other major world film festivals to help curate this specific part of the program. Italy, with its proud tradition of cinema, has also enjoyed something of a resurgence over the past few years, with directors including Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino (previous guests at the festival) dazzling the world with their unique and powerful stories. Garrone’s Dogman was presented this year—up on the big screen, where it needs to be seen—and newcomer Marcello Fonte, who was awarded Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, was in attendance. Alice Rohrwacher’s highly acclaimed Italian magical realist fable, Happy as Lazzaro, was represented by actors Sergi López, Adriano Tardiolo, and Luca Chikovani.

The New Authors section of the festival again included work from Croatian-born, Montenegrin-raised Ivan Salatić. Salatić’s documentary/fiction hybrids are homages to locales, using hypnotic compositions that he populates with actors and non-actors. His carefully composed cinematography feels inspired by photorealist painters, and his work has addressed such social issues as income inequality and homelessness. Inspired by the real-life shuttering of the Bijela Shipyard in Montenegro, his first feature film You Have the Night (2018) uses the mountainous Adriatic seaport to explore the lives of a group of people left stranded, broken, and destitute.

The Retrospective of Greatness section is a tribute to the films of master directors, producers, and actors. One of this year’s stellar revisitations was Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, a film that, 30 years after its production, feels as fresh, innovative, and relevant as it did when first released. And after the screening, Matt Dillon stepped onstage and led a heartfelt Q&A. Dillon, who is a great storyteller, shared his experiences collaborating with top cinema talent, ruminating on the creative process and recalling memories of shooting the breeze with William S. Burroughs.

Every year, global politics seems to get stranger and more surreal. Interestingly, one of the competition winners was directed by the former secretary of the Norwegian Green Party, who quit politics to give moviemaking a go. This year, Kusturica screened his new documentary, El Pepe, A Supreme Life, a chronicle of the last days in office of former revolutionary José Pepe Mujica, who was eventually elected president of Uruguay. Pepe, sometimes referred to in the press as “the poorest president,” also quit a successful career in politics— to concentrate on his garden. Kusturica’s film gives us a glimpse of Pepe driving around in his beat-up old baby- blue Volkswagen Beetle, working around the yard with his also– former guerrilla wife, and waxing poetic about society, politics, ecology, art, and culture.

It’s at Küstendorf where one can experience this kind of cinema, which resides outside the slick center of a number of the big players in awards venues. This magical festival is a one-of-a-kind event where moviemakers and cinema enthusiasts from everywhere spend a week together celebrating the roots of the art form and pondering where it’s headed. The experience is a breath of fresh mountain air in a world where motion pictures feel increasingly like 90-minute commercials overflowing with branded marketing. There is no doubt that Fellini would feel right at home here during this special week in January. It can’t be an accident that a street in the village is named in his honor. MM

Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival ran from January 11-16, 2019. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2019 issue. Featured image: Frenzied festival-goers sing at a cabin fever pitch on day three of Küstendorf 2019. Image courtesy of Küstendorf Film and Music Festival.