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Sarajevan's Journey From Cinema Hero to 'Traitor'

This is the second story of a two-part series that began Sunday on the Sarajevo Film Festival and the state of cinema in the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. Today, a profile of director Emir Kusturica, who is now an outcast in his hometown.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As the only Serbian director to attend the Sarajevo Film Festival, Srdjan Karanovic was understandably besieged by questions at his press conference. What was going on in Belgrade, who was working and what were they up to?

Karanovic rattled off half a dozen films currently being shot, but he did not mention "Black Cat White Cat," the latest work by Emir Kusturica, the former Yugoslavia's most celebrated director, a native and former resident of Sarajevo who now divides his time between Belgrade and France. Asked later why he left Kusturica off his list, Karanovic got off a "you must be kidding" look before answering, "I didn't want to disturb them. They hate him here, they treat him like a traitor."

Just a few years ago, such a response would have been unthinkable. Kusturica was Sarajevo's favorite son and a bona fide national cultural hero: When his Oscar-nominated "When Father Was Away on Business" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1985, Yugoslavia declared a national holiday.

In fact, each of Kusturica's works has won a prize at Europe's top three festivals, an unprecedented record that makes him one of the continent's most admired filmmakers. His debut, "Do You Remember Dolly Bell?," won a Golden Lion at Venice in 1981; "Time of the Gypsies" won him the best director award at Cannes in 1989; "Arizona Dreams," starring Johnny Depp, took a special jury prize at Berlin in 1993, and his latest film, "Underground," won him a rare second Palme d'Or in 1995.

There was no Yugoslavian national holiday in 1995 because by then a viable Yugoslavia no longer existed. The country had split into five separate nations that were involved in Europe's bloodiest nightmare since World War II. Kusturica's politics and his film, which dealt with the breakup, became the subject of intense debate about which side he was on not only in Sarajevo and Belgrade but all across Europe. It led to the director's public decision to quit filmmaking (he's since changed his mind) and to turbulent, invariably hostile commentary about him in his hometown. Probably nowhere in the world does the mention of a director's name elicit such an immediate and strong response from so many people as Kusturica's does here.

The reversal in this filmmaker's fortunes is a lesson in many things, from how deep the wounds of war can be to how puzzling yet intractable are feelings of national identity and pride and how central film has become to the expression of all of that. In fact, tell a film person from anywhere in the former Yugoslavia you want to discuss something complicated and they'll say, "It's about Kusturica, isn't it?"

"Underground," the director's newest film (initially called "Once There Was a Country"), is an unruly, audacious, unashamedly excessive requiem for a dying Yugoslavia. It is an impassioned and surreal look at the past 50 years of that country's history through the lens of an opportunist who keeps a trusting group of people holed up in a Belgrade basement by convincing them that World War II is still going on.

"Underground" impressed even those in the audience at Cannes who considered the film way over the top and its three-hour, 12-minute length unnecessary. (The film has since been trimmed to two hours, 48 minutes and will open at the Nuart in West Los Angeles at Christmas.)

Also impressive was Kusturica's passion for Yugoslavia. "I had to do something about a country that I loved, I had a need to answer the question, 'What happened?' " the 42-year-old director said at Cannes of his reasons for making "Underground." He also expressed displeasure, referring to Bosnia, at "now having to find myself under another flag, another country, another anthem," which is where things get complicated.

For though what's come to be called "Yugonostalgia" is a common feeling, actively promoting the preservation of Yugoslavia came to be viewed as trying to justify Serbian aggression. Also, the director's diffidence toward Bosnia at a time when it was under merciless attack did not go over well back home.

In addition, many of the subtexts of "Underground," like its blaming the country's problems on the policies of Marshal Tito instead of Serbian self-aggrandizement, could be interpreted as legitimizing the war. The more Kusturica thought--possibly naively, possibly with calculation--that he was refusing to take sides, stepping outside of politics by distancing himself from the Muslim nationalist party that ruled Bosnia, the more his actions placed him in the Serb camp in the eyes of Sarajevo. And his having shot the film partly in Belgrade with a bit of Serbian financing did not help the situation.

All this contributed to nearly a year of bitter intellectual trench warfare about the film centered in the journals of Paris. One side saw the film as "a rock, postmodern, over-the-top, hip, Americanized version of the most driveling and lying Serbian propaganda."

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