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Issue 11 June-August 1995

Kusturica's Lies Awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes
by Stanko Cerovic

At this year's Cannes Film Festival, the jury seems to have wanted to emphasize and reward political engagement and social responsibility. Even those journalists who liked Emir Kusturica's film agree that he won the prize not because the film was good, but because it was about war. Kusturica, to be Sarajevo-born, a Bosnian and Yugoslav: hence an incarnation in people's minds of the moral quality that has distinguished Sarajevo in this war. This is how he was seen by the jury and the public. However, it is the gap between this perception and what Kusturica and his film really stand for and defend, which invests his winning of the Golden Palm with exceptional political importance. As a result, this year's festival is likely to be remembered for the most successful manipulation in film history: the equivalent of the proverbial 'crime of the century'.

Of all the intellectuals once venerated in former Yugo9slavia, but who have since betrayed even the minimum of moral values, Kusturica has been most spared criticism. Because everybody sympathized with him, everybody was also saddened when, immediatley after Milosevic's arrival in power, he started giving interviews in which he gave support to Milosevic and Serb nationalism. This reticence about criticising Kusturica's behaviour, on the part of the opposition throughout former Yugoslavia, has proved to be of the greatest disservice to the man. For, moving from one compromise to the next, he has ended up collaborating with the most compromised people and institutions linked to the Yugoslav wars. Such a moral collapse, moreover, could not fail to be reflected in his aesthetic meanderings. His latest film shows that this confusion has resulted in real impotence, masked by an incessant firework display of noise, colour and meaningless scenes. Kusturica has said that after this film he might start a new career. We can only hope that he does so, and wish him well in it.

Demagogy Based on Lies

The film;s subtitle, doubtless devised for the Serbian market, is 'Once There Was a Country'. In the film, Kusturica wants to bring out a deeper meaning of Yugoslav history since World War II: ie. from the 1941 bombardment of Belgrade until the present day. His story implicityly conveyed, covers the revolution, postwar reconstruction, the corruption of the new regime, the recent break-up, and the current war. The revolution is led, metaphorically, by a Montenegrin and a Serb: two archetypal Belgrade figures, who together represent the cliche image of Serb heroes created by nationalist writers. These are people who fight and make love better than anybody else in the world, doubtless thanks to some genetic and spiritual superiority; but who sometimes also happen to sin or do wrong precisely because of this spiritual generosity and naivete, so that even their violence only adds to their irresistible charm. They are surrounded by scoundrels and traitors, represented by the German occupiers and other Yugoslav nations. The two, nevertheless, fearlessly fight on in occupied Belgrade. It is the time of the revolution. We see a party cell meeting. Someone has stolen money and betrayed the common cause. The guilty men are two highly unpleasant types: stuffy, well-groomed and sly. These two traitors, quite accidentally, of course, just happen to be a Muslim and a Croat. This is Kusturica's way of illustrating Dobrica Cosic's profound thought that Serbs always win the war but lose the peace.

Kusturica's reconstruction, in this film of the history of the revolution and of Yugoslavia during and after World War II, has nothing to do with reality - unless you accept the theories of Serb nationalists, which these days even in Belgrade tend to be confined to the yellow press. That Kusturica is consciously making propaganda, rather than merely being a victim of aesthetic inspiration gone politically wrong, is proved by his use of documentary material. Wherever possible he uses films that discredit either other Yutoglsav nations or the rotten West conspiring against Serbs. We are thus presented with archival footage showing the Nazis being welcomed in Zagreb and Ljubljana in 1941. When dealing with the present war, however, Kusturica refuses to use archival film - to show, for example, the bombardment of Vukovar, or the three-year-long destruction of his native city by the Serbian army - just as he refuses to show us film of the triumphalist farewell given in Belgrade to the Yugoslav army and its tanks as they went to wage war, this war, in Croatia and Bosnia, against literally unarmed people.

'This war in Bosnia is a civil war', says Kusturica. 'It is like an earthquake.' This is the phrase he also uses at the press conference. He describes as an earthquake a war which was prepared politically and militarily in detail for months in Belgrade; which was started by special units sent from Belgrade to Bosnia; and in which the worst crimes, rapes and deportations of population have been executed according to a plan and without the least spontaneity - all with the aim of creating ethnically pure territories in Bosnia. A main role in all this was played by Belgrade Television. If this is an earthquake, then Kusturica is indeed the spontaneous and naive artist he pretends to be, just as spontaneous, naive yet all-powerful as his heroes, who destory and kill all about them out of generosity of spirit and love of Yugoslavia, its other people and nations the same love and generosity that has motivated Arkan and Seselj.

Of course, Kusturica could not resist expounding the argument that the world powers are also responsible for this war. In his film they are the Blue Helmets: corrupt foreigners malevolently pulling the strings of war. At his press conference Kusturica stated that Milosevic and Serbia were not in the least responsible for the war; attacked the foreign media for giving a false picture of the war; insisted that the war in Bosnia was a civil war, in whichthe Bosnian army was attacking Serbs; and stressed Croat fascism active during and after World War II, up to and including the present day. Then he said - just as Slobodan Milosevic and even more his wife Mirjana like to do - that he was a Yugoslav and an anti-fascist, that this war was troubling and hurting him, that in any case he was not a politician, and that his film was relaly about love that will save the world. This demagogy based on lies is one of the worst assaults suffered by the Bosnian victims of this war.

Duplicity and Cowardice

This kind of demagogy, which would be received with derision even in Belgrade today got by in Cannes -leaving us with a travesty of history. Ths Bosnian Serbs committed one of the worst massacresof the entire war in Tuzla; and, after taking several hundred UN soldiers hostages, broadcast to the world pictures showing their humiliation. At this very moment in Cannes in front of four thousand accredited journalists and the creme de la creme of world businessmen and snobs, a film defending the people and the ideas most responsible for the war and its crimes was awarded a major prize.

Kusturica's film, one of the most expensive in the history of film-making, was partly financed by Belgrade Telvision - an institution which, together with the army, is most responsible for this war. In Cannes Kusturica was flanked by its director Vucelic, one of the most hated figureheads of the Serb nationalist movement. If he is to have any place among humanity, it should be at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, not at the Cannes Film Festival.

One ends up thinking that perhaps all this is for the best. Tht only a powerful and witty muse could have organised these events at Cannes. In this beautiful and wealthy city, the representatives and favourites of a criminal regime came together with the Western elite to act out a play based on duplicity,manipulation, stupidity and cowardice. They applauded themselves and congratulated themselves with phrases full of humanism, art and love, while in Bosnia - precisely in the name of this false theatre - hundreds of innocent people continue to be killed, well-intentioned Western soldiers continue to be humiliated, and Serbia, which Kusturica is allegedly defending, is dying in the arms of Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb extremists, who today are perhaps worse than him but whom he created and taught to butcher. Like Kusturica, they did it in the name of love, democracy, antifascism. Yuguslavia and all those wonderful and beautiful slogans, which - when youhear them mouthed by such people - make you even more sick that the war itself does.

Stanko Cerovic, Montenegrin by nationality, is on the staff of the French radio station RFI.

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