Wednesday, 30 September

Kusturica, Drvengrad and the Fake Balkans

Fake Balkans, good afternoon! Drvengrad is the wooden town of Emir Kusturica, who built this settlement at the beginning of the 2000s for the film “Life Is a Miracle”. The village in a Serbian ethnic style, as neat as an image from a movie, emerged between the mountain massifs of Zlatibor and Tara. Tidy and colourful, it is ready to welcome crowds of tourists. It really crawls with people in the midst of the season in summer.

The reason for this is the fame of Emir Kusturica as a film director. His films won the Golden Palms of the Cannes Film Festival, the most popular actors in the world starred in them, and many people travel to the Balkans, Serbia, and Drvengrad, in particular, to feel the phantasmagoric atmosphere from his movies. This settlement is aimed for such visitors – even the entrance fee is charged here like in a museum.

It is an interesting walk for those who saw “Life Is a Miracle” because they can feel as if they are amidst the familiar scenery. If desired, one can even take a ride on a tourist train known from the movie shots. The director also added some spice after filming: he named the streets after Bruce Lee and Maradona, and sent George Bush and Javier Solana to the dungeon called “The Urban Prison of Humanism and Renaissance”. In short, everything here is aimed at making you smile and take pictures.

That is why Drvengrad is perhaps my greatest disappointment in the Balkans. But this place is important because it reflects, to a certain extent, the stereotype of a unique Balkan soul. Here you have to drink rakija, listen to the gypsy orchestra and simulate joy. There won’t be any genuine joy, because from the first steps you can feel how people cheat and try to get money out of you. You see, imprisoned Bush and the street named after Russian director Mikhalkov is here to brainwash you with an idea that art has begun to serve political and propagandistic purposes.

Eventually, Kusturica himself pursued the bizarre path, or, more specifically, turned from a great director to an Orthodox bigot and Serbian chauvinists (the name “Emir” suits these characteristics so well!). Even in Serbia, many people no longer perceive him as an authoritative cultural figure as well as there are those who blame him for some financial and land fraud. Being twice a winner in Cannes, one needs to have a talent to liaise with the authorities so that they will appoint one the head of the National Nature Park “Mokra Gora” (that’s how the enterprising director built his Drvengrad), and then fire one for the alleged manipulation with public money and privatization of land! But this is not Kusturica’s main fault.

His main sin that made him famous worldwide, lies in the creation of the fake myth of the Balkans. This myth is pretty opportunistic because Kusturica himself did not invent anything new, he simply developed Western stereotypes about the region. He made films about the Balkan people who are always drunk, dirty and сheerful, who dance, shoot each other and swindle. Gypsies and bears, golden teeth and pistols behind the belts, wild people more reminding barbarians – this is how people in the West have been imagining the Balkans for centuries. And Kusturica fervently relaid it. In his first films in the nineties he managed to do it in a talented way, almost brilliantly, but then began to repeat himself and faded away in his creativity. Today, the great director turned into a parody – his favorite genre technique.

But the myth that he created about the Balkans continues to live. Those who are hungry for exotic experience come here, thinking that the foot-tapping melodies of Bregovich sound everywhere on the streets here, and every feast ends with either a drunk shooting or a nationalist conflict. That is why they will be disappointed: Drvengrad will turn to be dead and fake, and the Serbian folk music – slow and hasteless.

But the disappointment can be followed by a startling discovery: the true Balkans are more interesting and deeper than the popular myth by Kusturica and Co.

Andrii Lyubka

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