On a preserved film set in the mountains of western Serbia, the cobblestone streets and alleys of the picturesque hilltop village of Drvengrad came alive from January 14 to 19, when three generations of filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts gathered for the 10th annual Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival.

Festival founder Emir Kusturica built this town as the set of his 2004 film Life is a Miracle, and now he makes it a home and gathering place for artists. He was born not far from here, in Sarajevo, and honed his skills as a director during the early federation and breakup of Yugoslavia. Growing up in a culture with a fabled literary and storytelling tradition (though in a country with relatively limited production resources), pure talent and determination twice won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Emir Kusturica and an array of previous festival edition posters

This personal experience was an inspiration to help young directors “step bravely and self-confidently” into a great cinematic tradition he feels has increasingly been stifled by commercial considerations. Concerned that pressure to produce cinema solely as entertainment is leaving young directors “alone out in the ocean,” Kusturica had the idea to host a special short film competition—and to connect these potential future masters with renowned guest directors, producers, cinematographers and actors. Küstendorf does all this with the support of the Serbian Ministry of Culture—as well as Kusturica’s killer personal Rolodex.

The 2017 “Retrospective of Greatness” screened work in Drvengrad’s three theaters. There were workshops, and in the evenings, relaxed communal dinners where producers and directors were accessible in what the festival prides as a “non-red-carpet setting.” One highlight of the program was a rare opportunity to view cinema produced during the late 1960s and early 1970s from what is sometimes called the Yugoslav Black Wave—most likely a reference to directors’ gravitation to society’s underbelly during that era, and their stylistic inspiration of the French New Wave.

Moviemaker Gordan Mihić in Drvengrad

These and other features were on loan from the Yugoslav Film Archive in Belgrade, which claims to safeguard more than 90 percent of Yugoslav film production since the Second World War. Screenings included a fascinating first co-directorial effort, Crows (Vrane) (1969) from Gordan Mihić and Ljubiša Kozomara, about a group of troubled, directionless young people that, “like a flock of crows, peck at anything to find the meaning of life,” and whose story can end in no way except tragedy. Mihić, a guest at this year’s festival, also co-wrote the screenplays on some of Kusturica’s best-known work.

Another honored Küstendorf 2017 guest was Filipino director Lav Diaz, winner of the 2016 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his film The Woman Who Left. The festival also screened A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, a 485-minute mystical narrative revisiting the Filipino uprising against Spanish colonial rule. This production won Diaz the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival’s prestigious Alfred Bauer Prize, awarded for work that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art.”

Director Lav Diaz arrives to a welcome from Kusturica

This year’s “Contemporary Trends” and “New Authors” events screened feature films from China, Finland, Bulgaria, France, Italy—and, of course, Serbia. Küstendorf, not surprisingly, is a place where there is a special interest in works from Serbian, Russian, former Yugoslav and East European production communities. Add to that mix young directors from almost two dozen other countries represented in competition, and you are looking at something akin to an annual world cinema congress called to order on a magical hilltop village in the snowy Zlatibor mountains.

Festival attendees also had the opportunity to view some of Kusturica’s work on the big screen, including his most recent, On the Milky Road (2016), starring the director himself and Italian actress Monica Bellucci—a guest at a previous edition of the festival. Black Cat, White Cat (1998) was also screened, one of several of Kusturica’s groundbreaking productions featuring Roma protagonists in unforgettable dramas. The Roma, or Romani, are the nomadic people often referred to as gypsies, and Küstendorf 2017 gave a nod to this celebration of Roma culture with a special presentation of a heart-wrenching documentary by Serbian Roma painter and director Zoran Tairović. It’s not hard to understand what Küstendorf programmers saw in Tairović’s unique and poetic Paper Life, an intimate, weighty and artistic portal into the life of a kind Roma family barely surviving in modern day Europe.

After the closing ceremony, where an international jury presented Golden, Silver and Bronze Eggs (as well as an Honorable Mention award, Best Cinematography prize and a special award spontaneously created for most poetic work), Küstendorf 2017 was declared officially over and the closing night party commenced. The next morning, after a groggy breakfast, newly made friends and colleagues embraced and swapped emails on Federico Fellini Street and in Nikola Tesla Square. Then they packed themselves into buses and vans, headed down the mountain, hung over with a nice dose of Küstendorf hospitality—and with a happy reminder that art in cinema is still alive. MM

Written with the assistance of Lilly Milic

The 10th Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival took place January 14-19, 2017, in Drvengrad, Serbia. Photographs courtesy of the festival.