The 2019 Küstendorf International Film and Music Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Darragh O’Donoghue


Küstendorf is a festival and theme park devoted to Great Men. An ersatz folk village in the snowy hills of Western Siberia, conceived by controversial Yugoslav-turned-Serbian director Emir Kusturica, its streets and buildings are named after Great Serbians, Great Leftists, and/or Great Filmmakers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kusturica shares a first syllable with his festival. In any case, I couldn’t find the name of a single woman on the signage. The weird, faux-folk opening ceremony, a mix of Eurovision Song Contest and Comintern Christmas party, was dominated by long speeches by Kusturica and the Serbian Minister of Culture. Paternalism extends to the film program itself. The first and last features shown were documentaries about South American patriarchs, the outgoing Uruguayan President “El Pepe” and the Argentine Pope Francis. Films in the “Retrospective of Greatness” strand were devoted to Kusturica’s “father figures,” such as the recently deceased Milos Forman and Bernardo Bertolucci, or “sons” such as his frequent co-star Slavko Štimac. The undoubted worthiness of devoting a competition to student films has the effect of positioning Kusturica as a patron of future generations.

It is impossible not to read individual films or the program as a whole for what they might say about or mean to Kusturica, rather than their own intrinsic qualities: for instance, we find sources for Arizona Dream and Underground in Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe, shown as part of a tribute to the Łódz Film School, and Bertolucci’s 1900. I’m not sure how much input Kusturica had into the programming of Küstendorf, but certainly if your film featured some combination of dogs, mental illness, criminal marginality, folk music, and magical realism, you had a better chance of being on the bill. Even one of the greatest and most idiosyncratic films of the last two decades—Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro—begins to look like the work of a Kusturacolyte. In addition to the tenets listed here, it centers, like Underground, on a moral monster that keeps her dependents in enslaved ignorance.

Roman Polanski (center) acts as a street tough in his own short, Two Men and a Wardrobe.

Roman Polanski (center) acts as a street tough in his own short, Two Men and a Wardrobe.

Kusturica’s films often use Alice in Wonderland as an intertext. We can extend this to the artwork that is Küstendorf, a fake village made real, a topsy-turvy carnival where Kusturica, former associate of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and current friend of Vladimir Putin, is presented with the Zolani Mkiva Humanitarian Award for “peacekeeping and charitable activities,” after a jaw-dropping encomium by Mkiva, South African poet, singer, and President of the Institute of African Royalty. Previous winners include that other great humanitarian, Fidel Castro. As this presentation continued, I genuinely thought it was some sort of skit. Coincidentally, Kusturica raced from the festival’s closing ceremony to Belgrade (more than 200 kilometers away) to welcome Putin on his state visit to Serbia.

Although billed as an international film and music festival (most of the acts performing variants of the catchy but nightmarish-at-length oompah folk music of Kusturica’s own films), and including ancillary events such as art and photography exhibitions and a celebration of the Orthodox New Year, this report will focus on the festival’s film program. It was divided into the shorts competition, retrospectives, and the strands “Contemporary Trends” and “New Authors/Kustendorf Presents.”

The opening ceremony concluded with Kusturica’s latest film, El Pepe: A Supreme Life. In the very great and very problematic Underground, the villainous Marko—former gangster and Serbian resistant and now high-ranking apparatchik in Tito’s dictatorship of Yugoslavia—authorizes a big-budget film based on his memoirs. These were a fabrication in the first instance, exaggerating and reimagining his farcical misadventures as heroic deeds of national destiny. They also contained one giant lacuna, the fact that the community of resistants he led were kept in a cellar, convinced that the war was still raging. Needless to say, the film shoot is a tragicomic disaster.

I was often reminded of Marko’s memoirs and film while watching Kusturica’s hagiography of Uruguay’s recent President José “Pepe” Mujica, a former Tupamaros guerilla, political prisoner, and victim of right-wing torture, now a cuddly leftist icon who helps the poor out of his own pocket, takes in maimed dogs, and poses for selfies with young admirers. Allowing for toilet humor and sequences of drug taking, El Pepe is very similar to the kind of propaganda portraits of great leaders or exemplary figures produced throughout the Cold War and pastiched by Andrzej Wajda in Man of Marble (1976). More than a century after the Russian Revolution, it seems to be as impossible as ever to conceive of socialism without its attendant cult of (male) personality. Kusturica tries to make El Pepe a love story between the president and his wife, lifelong revolutionary comrade Lucía Topolansky, who also spent long periods jailed and tortured for guerrilla activities, and who is now a senator and tireless activist. But as poet Mauricio Rosencof points out in the film, he and Pepe spent more time in jail together than with their wives, and subject and film are apparently happier in the company of old men, reminiscing fondly about the horrific past, give or take a dyspeptic pro-Putin, anti-U.S., anti-EU rant, claiming that Russia’s imperialist 2014 invasion of Crimea was a revolutionary act of liberation! Kusturica’s film is all about El Pepe the paternalist, with the often talked about “people” little more than onlookers to his apotheosis.

José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, former president of Uruguay, in Kusturica’s portrait of him, El Pepe: A Supreme Life.

As with the Küstendorf film and music program itself, Kusturica uses pseudonationalistic music on the soundtrack—which El Pepe both mansplains and participates in—to smooth over these issues. Unfortunately for Kusturica, he had already given in Underground a masterclass in how initially attractive, invigorating, sentimental, and/or dynamic music can be used for reactionary ends—to enforce consensus, to divert from or evade atrocity, to deceive or persuade. So, we are immediately on our guard when we hear brass bands and tango in El Pepe.

Pepe takes Kusturica on a tour of key places in his life story, most notably the brutal prison that has become a shopping mall. Whatever the merits of Kusturica’s use of this physical transformation as a metaphor for the vast socioeconomic and cultural changes in Uruguay and South America over the last half-century, the fusion of narration, witness, remembered past and present fact, makes it the film’s most potent sequence. A confrontation in a café with another old man disintegrates into bad-tempered name-calling and swearing, and hints that there are alternative interpretations of Pepe’s life and career. For me, the most chilling moment in the film is when Pepe, recalling the criminal activities that were deemed necessary for the “cause,” remembers with satisfaction the power he derived from walking into a bank with a gun. This fascistic posturing—terrorizing members of the public and low-level employees—earned gales of laughter from Kusturica in the film, as well as the audience at Küstendorf, so I am assuming that our reaction to Pepe’s anecdote is not meant to be critical.

The real love story in this film is not between Pepe and his wife, but between Pepe and Kusturica. It begins with Kusturica, Che-bearded and lighting a Havana, staring across a table at Pepe with goo-goo eyes. With his first films Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981), which screened in the festival, and When Father Was Away on Business (1985), Kusturica already revealed a weakness for dubious patriarchs. In comparison to the work of, say, Chilean Patrizio Guzmán—who for fifty years has single-mindedly engaged with the contemporary history of his country and its legacy, and who has deconstructed the idea of the South American Great Man, whether that man was genuinely great, like Allende, or a murderer like Pinochet—El Pepe is glib, the documentary equivalent of a photo-feature for a glossy magazine. It is posture politics, celebrity grandstanding, the Bonofication of political discourse. At one point, Pepe carefully prepares a stimulant for Kusturica in a smoking pipe, which he offers as if it was Rohypnol. He needn’t have bothered; Kusturica is all his for the asking.

Pope Francis in Wim Wenders’s documentary profile, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.

From El Pepe to El Papa, and another European auteur in terminal artistic decline fawning over a major authority figure—sorry, “humble” man. Wim Wenders’s Pope Francis: A Man of His Word was co-produced by the Vatican. In it, Pope Francis addresses the audience directly, like a more homely version of a sermon from the pulpit. Occasionally, the positioning of the seated pope against the background landscape makes it look as if he is floating in the air. Indeed, there are many shots of Francis silhouetted by an airplane window, which may remind cinephiles of Hitler’s entrance to Nuremburg in Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious Nazi propaganda epic Triumph of the Will. This is not meant as a snide remark. This pope is clearly a decent, intelligent, conscientious, brave, and witty man, whose assault on anti-immigration forces and the arms trade in the belly of the beast, the U.S. Congress, is a major coup, but also a reminder that all propaganda has the same end, whether for “our” or “their” side, and that is to persuade.

As with El Pepe, this is pure personality cult, with the pope’s iconic identity kept intact despite the disparate visual sources used. All the problems of the world reflect on him as a caring person, and not on the people suffering the problems, or the root cause (usually corporate) of those problems. This is no different from Angelina Jolie or Bono taking the world’s camera crews with them as they emote in front of Rwandan landmines or emaciated Ethiopians. There is no critical context presented in the film—Francis’s personal anger at pedophilia is hardly an admission of the Church’s responsibility in its worldwide practice; his “acceptance” of homosexuality doesn’t extend to the acceptance of homosexually active clergy; and his supremely condescending tribute to the importance of women doesn’t result in women being allowed to train as priests.

Francis’s authority on these issues is never questioned. At one point, he says that it is important to forgive and forget, which is a convenient way of dealing with grievances and eliding his own less-than-heroic role during Argentina’s Dirty War in the Seventies. In a previous life, Wenders was more searching about the effects of organized religion in his Nathaniel Hawthorne adaptation The Scarlet Letter (1973), about the leaders of discrete communities in Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), about the representation of propaganda and power in his review of Joachim C. Fest’s Hitler: A Career film (1977), or about the ambiguity of celebrity in his superlative Eddie Constantine interview (both of the latter texts appear in Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema, London, Faber & Faber, 1989). That all seems a long time ago. Today, Wenders seriously and repeatedly compares this good but flawed man of and in the world to Saint Francis, confirming his film as pure hagiography. Instead of the illuminations that would illustrate medieval hagiographies, we get the usual overblown late-Wenders coffee-table landscapes in time-lapse, and a pastiche silent film about Saint Francis that is so convincing I was desperate to see it when this movie ended.

Jobless Sanja (Ivana Vuković) in Ivan Salatić’s You Have the Night.

Thankfully, there are still some filmmakers interested in showing less exalted lives, or rather, in exalting genuinely “humble” or marginal lives. The Montenegran Ivan Salatic’s You Have the Night seems to be typical Dardennes fare, family misery and petty brutality in a setting of industrial decline. The treatment, however, is anything but routine. The word “painterly” is too often used as a generic synonym for something with visual novelty or even just a bit of color. With You Have the Night, Salatic strains for and often achieves a quiet visual sublimity. He uses the chiaroscuro of Old Master paintings to light his scenes, shooting contre-jour to highlight extremities—of foliage, for example. Marian blue is worn by several actors, and one sequence of men taking out the litter is shot like a heaving Caravaggio composition— “The Arrest of Christ,” say, filmed by Bill Viola. My reference to Caravaggio is not gratuitous—the painter famously used socially marginal figures to portray Christs, Virgins, and Saints. Salatic tries to sanctify the everyday in a world that seems on the surface to be colorless and bleak. Whether this exquisite pictorialism adds up to a film is another matter.

The Gentle Indifference of the World reminded me of Birds of Passage [see review by this author in Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3, Summer 2019] as an ostensible crime-genre narrative reimagined by new eyes, a new locale, a new way of looking at the world. It is set in Kazakhstan, somewhere between Europe and Asia, Islam and Buddhism, and follows two intertwined destinies. The father of doctor Saltanat commits suicide, leaving huge debts. The young woman is offered by her mother to an uncle who plans to pimp her off to various middle-aged businessmen. She is accompanied to the big city by Kuandyk, who seems the Holy Fool type; his gentle giant antics only get him into increasingly dodgy circumstances. Director Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s “painterly” use of light and composition is comparable to You Have the Night, though the models here are mainly Edward Hopper and his crepuscular images of lonely women in interiors, French Impressionism, and the naive artist Douanier Rousseau. Magic-hour wide-screen compositions are reminiscent of Malick, whose radical treatment of genre in Badlands seems to be an influence. It is Kazakh art, ritual, and folklore, however, that is decisive, leading to the film’s astonishing final sequence, where a humdrum crime scene is elevated into something much more mysterious and metaphysical.

Dinara Baktybaeva in Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s painterly The Gentle Indifference of the World.

Another offbeat treatment of the crime genre is Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, the most radical reworking of Hollywood slapstick since the plays of Samuel Beckett. Marcello is the dogman of the title, grooming, setting, and walking pets. He is a happy schlemiel, with a sideline in drug dealing, which funds the scuba-diving trips he takes with his beloved daughter, who lives with his estranged wife. The big headache in Marcello’s life, as it is for the rest of the business community with whom he shares fraternal relations, is Simoncino, a drug-frazzled hulk who doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “no,” destroys anything or anyone who gets in his way, and continually harasses Marcello for speed at the most inopportune moments.

Halfway through the film, a drug deal goes horribly wrong in a workshop where waxworks of Stan and Ollie are produced. The often vicious slapstick that characterizes a Laurel and Hardy film like Big Business is amplified in the dependent/antagonistic relationship of hapless minor criminals Marcello and Simoncino to levels of excruciating violence. The unsettling erasure of human and animal boundaries that begins with the title and the opening sequence showing Marcello carefully grooming a ferocious dog comes to a terrifying climax when he locks the bestial Simoncino into a cage.

Marcello Fonte deservedly won the Best Actor prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival—he is the worm that turns from stooped, nasal-voiced, simian-like, ingratiating naïf, to someone shocked by betrayal into reclaiming his dignity, at the cost of his family, community, and sanity. This unforgettable performance is given maximum space by Garrone’s virtuoso long circular takes. His Laurel exists in a symbiotic relationship with Edoardo Pesce’s Hardy, and shows us what might have happened if Ollie had belittled Stan once too often.

The imaginative quality of such genre reworkings made the “real” thing look tame by comparison. David Oelhoffen’s Freres Ennemis is rich in narrative and stylistic cliché—issues of trust, belonging, and betrayal in a family and extended ethnic community, with noisy family get-togethers juxtaposed with violence; the friends from the hood who diverge in adult life, one becoming a cop, the other a thug; the big score that goes wrong and its fallout; the women reduced to bit parts as molls, mothers, or uncomprehending bosses; the gray urban mise en scène shot with handheld cameras; and the punctuation of intense stasis with spasms of violence. From setting to story to style, there is little to distinguish Freres Ennemis from a French television policier like Spiral (Engrenages), except that the greater length of the latter allows for greater depth in character, narrative, and sociology. The film’s setting in a beur (North African immigrant) community results only in platitudes, while Oelhoffen achieves the impossible and elicits a dull performance from Reda Kateb, so astonishing in the director’s previous film, the period Camus adaptation Far from Men (2014).

 A more interesting, though problematic treatment of crime and race was provided by the documentary Game Girls. Part of a series of films made by the Polish-German Alina Skrzeszewska while embedded in Skid Row, Los Angeles, “homeless capital of the U.S.,” Gone Girls is a turbulent love story that seeks to justify yet another white intrusion into the pain of Black America. Teri and Tiahna strive to escape their circumstances: a history of abuse, neglect, degradation, drug addiction, and prostitution; the indifferent corporate world that looms over them in neighboring skyscrapers (against which they protest to little visible effect); and, by contrast, the very brutal attention given by club- and shield-wielding police. Teri, riven by mental illness, nevertheless articulates her situation in compelling squalls of verbal fury aimed at the institutional injustices suffered by her and fellow African-Americans. Unfortunately, she takes out her justified frustrations with the wider world on the more easygoing, puppy-loving Tiahna. The film’s extraordinary central sequence narrates their wedding, from choosing outfits for bride and groom, to the day itself, when Tiahna is hours late, and Teri is consumed with rage, aggression, and anxiety, to the aftermath and the love/hate recriminations and reconciliations that follow. Game Girls is full of the stops, starts, false climaxes, and baffling ellipses of life itself. Depressingly, all this happened under Obama’s watch. Goodness knows what the situation is like now.

 Despite some sanctimony at the opening ceremony about the importance of preserving film in the age of digitization, television, and streaming, many of the retrospective films in the “Retrospective of Greatness” strand were shown in digitized format. A neglected masterpiece like Manuel Poirier’s odd-couple road movie Western (1997) was shown on DVD (not even a Blu-ray!).

 The greatest revelation in this strand was Obrad Glušcevic’s The Lone Wolf (1972), the best boy-and-dog film since Lassie. That might sound like faint praise, but Lassie is highly underrated, one of the great mystical movies, and The Lone Wolf has much of its power. Also apparently made for children, this Yugoslav work stars Slavko Štimac as twelve-year-old Ranko who lives in a remote village—one not dissimilar to Küstendorf itself, for which The Lone Wolf may have served as a model. The film cites the fable of “Cry wolf,” the myth of Androcles and the lion, the animal fiction of socialist American author Jack London (much admired behind the Iron Curtain), and, no doubt, countless local legends and fables. It is set soon after World War II, and a legacy of violence undergirds this apparent arcadia. The film’s shock opening follows a lulling pan over snowy mountains with a sequence of children playing at partisans and viciously baiting dogs, while the men, presumably recent partisans themselves, hunt down wolves to protect their poultry and earn extra cash.

 A narrative centered on a disillusioned child’s experience of the fallen adult world is not unusual, but in such films the child is usually powerless to change or influence his circumstances. Ranko is definitely the proactive hero of this film, as befits an inspirational tale for socialist kids. Štimac carries the film’s ethical baggage with the appealing directness that will mark his future work, but it is the film’s visual flourishes that stand out. These often relate to light—the flaming lamps held aloft as adults search for the missing Ranko; a cut from a close-up of a lantern to a wide shot of the dawn sun. Sometimes, ethnographic filmmaker Glušcevic’s skills with composition and montage come to the fore, often focusing on violence against animals, and offering rare examples of nonanthropomorphic, animal point of view, such as the terror of the sheep in its specially designed pen as a ravenous wolf circles it, or the climactic hunt for the Alsatian, with men spread across the vast landscape as in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, clattering pots and pans, and cocking rifles—beloved fathers and neighbors turned into a lynch mob or occupying army.

 Küstendorf prides itself on its young filmmakers’ shorts competition and, hearteningly, each one is given the same space in the program as works by the likes of Garrone or Bertolucci. Too many of the shorts in competition looked like art installations, or what used to be referred to as “calling cards,” ambitious miniature versions of feature films. Most of the shorts were about families (and family secrets) as you might expect from young filmmakers. Most were fictions. Most professed to “social awareness” or realism, with even those devoted to fantasy, folklore, war allegory, or science fiction more interested in engagement than escapism. This was the one place in Küstendorf where women did have a significant presence. The prizes were divided evenly between earnest politicking, conceptual overreaching, and stylistic flash, and were not to this writer’s taste, which is of course not important. There were, however, three shorts that seemed to rise above the conformist rut.

 Hasta Siempre Commandante gently guyed the sentimental attitude to aging revolutionaries found in El Pepe. Set in a Havana barber shop, a traditional site of male bonding, it explores the generational gap between a father and old revolutionary—spouting bromides about the revolution despite present stagnation and dilapidation, his life a stasis, sitting and staring into space, confined to interiors—and his young son who wears “fag’’ earrings (a very pointed remark about a regime that persecuted homosexuals for decades), stylized haircuts, and who wants to get a tattoo. His father refuses, remembering that in his day they were the insignia of “low lifes.” Hasta was filmed as part of an Abbas Kiarostami masterclass, and his influence can be seen in the static framing and the film’s ambiguity between fiction and documentary. The film’s atmosphere and humor, however, are Syrian-American director’s Faisal Attrache’s own; he is particularly sensitive to color, architecture, the voices and gestures of his characters, and the peculiar Cuban light.

 Gökçe Erdem’s Titanyum is an update of Vera Chytilová’s Czech New Wave classic Something Different (1963), which paralleled two stories, one a fiction about a bored housewife, the other a documentary about a champion gymnast. Here, the young protagonist is a figure skater who stays mostly silent, whether out training or at home. The film begins with a clunky domestic scene, with the family silently eating dinner, while a male newscaster reads the news about the wider world. Then something magical happens. The skating scenes, already impressive, are followed by a painful yet exhilarating long take showing the protagonist as she circles and repeatedly fails to execute a jump. A visual euphoria is created on both the level of drama (we feel for her failure and will her to succeed) and stylistically (how did they do that?). Later sequences cut into the skating shots, but rhythmically, in the manner of Stanley Donen’s signature number in Singin’ in the Rain. I would love to see Erdem direct a musical! What is the source of the skater’s self-doubt—familial, communal, or national? Set in 1990s Turkey, we know with melancholy hindsight that options will only narrow for girls like the protagonist and her young sister when Erdogan comes to power in the next decade.

 The Fold of the Cowards is an ingenious response to that overworked experimental subgenre, the found-footage film. Basque filmmaker Xabier Alconero plunders multiple sources to tell the apparently whimsical story of a man who wants to fly, but has spent his life working for a manufacturer of fences. His inability to fly is linked to his keeping a caged bird. The rapid editing of source material turns an apparently “objective” or historical narrative into a sarcastic and angry parable, offering a rapid flight through the history of modern Spain from fascism to modern corruption involving royals, politicians, and celebrities. A bathetic pattern of images of flight and fall create a visual and thematic dynamic. The short’s mix of confident fabulism and political rigor is reminiscent of Chris Marker, and for this viewer at least is a far more engaging and profound way to deal with history and current affairs than some of the more earnest works honored at the festival.

 For more information on the Küstendorf Film and Music Festival, click here.

Darragh O’Donoghue, a Contributing Writer for Cineaste, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.


Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3