In the rarified air of Drvengrad in the mountains of Serbia, film is the breath of life.
The mad genius responsible for the Küstendorf Film Festival is Emir Kusturica, director of the film Underground, amongst others. Kusturica, known as “The Professor” not only for his degrees but for his encyclopedic knowledge of film and his dedication to film neophytes and aspiring filmmakers (is there any other festival which features student shorts as a main attraction?) is part historian, part raconteur and entirely devoted to film as art. When he talks about movies it is akin to a religious experience.
But Kusturica is not a stuffy professor. He knows the pitfalls of the business and is down to earth. At opening night of this year’s Küstendorf (which ran January 21-26, 2016), he quoted Milos Forman’s advice about the movie business, which Kusturica has never forgotten: “Try not to be an asshole.” Such blunt wisdom was only to be expected from a two-time winner of Cannes’ Palme d’ Or, who made his way to the stage dressed in a chef’s white hat and coat, brandishing a big metal spoon and declaring, “I’m going to be your cook!”
Throughout the festival, Kusturica was joined by various major European filmmakers. Highlights from this year’s program included Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Pablo Trapero’s The Clan, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, as well as a tribute to German producer Karl Baumgartner, who passed away in 2014.
On opening night, Italian director Matteo Garrone of Gomorrah fame held a Q&A after the screening of his most recent movie, Tale of Tales. Based on the fables of 17th-century Italian poet Giambattista Basile and featuring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly, the film marked the first time Garrone had directed American actors in English speaking roles. The director spoke passionately about his films and his humble beginnings as a painter. This artistic sensibility drew Garrone to the alternate visual medium of cinema, one which, he professed, was more difficult at times than painting.
“When I painted oil on canvas, I could look up after five hours and see how I was doing. In film, I have to wait five months sometimes before I can see if it’s good or bad.” He added, “There would be moments [in Tale of Tales] I thought were so funny. I was laughing all the time on the set. But when I spoke with the editor later, he would say, ‘Matteo, this is a very sad movie.'”
Garrone spoke further of the influence painters like Caravaggio had on his process. Tale of Tales is populated by characters who could’ve climbed out of a Baroque painting, albeit a nightmarish one. Though he was not the director of photography on his latest, cinematography is his way of painting a scene. “I believe the actors should not follow the camera, but the camera follow the actors.”
Kusturica echoed a similar sentiment from Michelangelo Antonioni: “[Putting] your camera here or there is a moral issue.” The ancient Greeks, the Professor continued, equated the questions of morality and aesthetics, “but today in film, it is very often about neither.”
The students in attendance listened intently. If they were not taking notes, they should have been.
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“We all love movies,“ Jacques Audiard told the audience after the screening of his latest film, Dheepan. Audiard, the French auteur behind Rust and Bone, A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Read My Lips and A Self-Made Hero (all except the first screened in a retrospective at Küstendorf ’16), addressed the crowd with assistance from a translator: “The majority of you are students, right? I hope you guys will make good movies. It is the way directors speak to each other.”
During the Q&A, the question arose: Why Audiard did make Dheepan, a movie about a Sri Lankan warrior who flees to France and ends up as a caretaker in a drug-ridden area outside Paris? “I want representation in my films,” he explained, discussing his desire to experiment and break free from the French millieu.
“In the beginning Dheepan starts out as a war movie. Then it turns into a documentary [about] the way that immigrants are settling into a community. Then it turns into a ghetto movie and then into a love story.”
The character of Dheepan, played by actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan, was, for Audiard, about the struggle to make sense of one’s reality and to survive. “It’s the suffering that forms character very often. Yes, it’s the suffering. You have a go at a particular life and you ask yourself if you want to have a second chance, making a different life… What will it take to have a second chance?”
Audiard explained that the origin of any film begins with his writing partner, Thomas Bidegain. They talk about cinema, theater and music, and after many conversations an axis is formed, then an idea. They move toward it until it becomes clear.
“I belong to the film lovers’ generation in the 1970s,” said Audiard. “That’s what we did. There were two possible destinies for bourgeois children: to become critics of movies, or to form a band and play rock.”
His love of film began with silent movies, “where there are no words to explain what is being felt.”
Kusturica echoed that sentiment later on: “Cinema cannot be too much talking.”
For Audiard it is always about life, not only the character’s but his own. “Movies help me live.”
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“Geese will save film” was the slogan for this ninth annual Küstendorf Film and Music Festival. Kusturica explained that it had to with the history of Rome, dating back to 390 BC when the city was saved from defeat by the Gauls who would’ve prevailed had geese not alerted Roman guards of the imminent attack.
“If geese can save Rome, perhaps, then, geese will save film, too,” Kusturica proclaimed.
In the mountains of Serbia, on the snowy grounds of the Küstendorf Film Festival, between Federico Fellini Way, the Stanley Kubrick Theatre and a meandering flock of geese, anything is possible. But my money’s on the cook. MM
The Küstendorf Film Festival ran January 21-26, 2016. Photographs by James McSherry. Top image features Andrićgrad, Bosnia.