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Canned Lies

Belgrade has rolled out the red carpet for a new epic film. Its world premiere was attended by the Serbian secret police chief, flanked by celebrated war criminal 'Arkan' (the Rambo of the Balkans). But did the jury at Cannes have to give the same film the Golden Palm? asks Stanko Cerovic.

This year's Cannes Festival must have wanted to reward political engagement and social responsibility. Even journalists who liked Emir Kusturica's Politics in the Underground agreed that he won the prize not because the film was good, but because it was about war. Kusturica happens to be Sarajevo-born, a Bosnian and a Yugoslav, hence an incarnation in people's minds of the moral quality that has distinguished Sarajevo in this war. The gap between this public perception and what Kusturica and his film really stand for, gives his winning the Golden Palm exceptional political importance. The 1995 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 Yugoslavia who have since betrayed even the minimum of moral values, Kusturica has been most sparingly criticised. Because everybody sympathised with him, everybody was saddened when immediately after Milosevic's arrival in power Kusturica started giving interviews in which he gave support to the regime and to Serb nationalism.

The opposition's reluctance to criticise Kusturica's behaviour has proved to be of the greatest disservice to the man. 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 could not fail to be reflected in his aesthetic meanderings, and his latest film shows real impotence masked by a 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.

Yellow Press Heroes

The film's subtitle, doubtless devised for the Serbian market, is 'Once There Was a Country'. Kusturica aims to bring out the deeper meaning of Yugoslav history since World War II, from the 1941 bombardment of Belgrade until the present day. His story, conveyed from the vantage point of a cellar, 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 naivety. 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 the profound insight of our last president - former historical novelist and nationalist ideologue Dobrica Cosic - that Serbs always win the war but lose the peace.

Kusturica's reconstruction of history 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 succumbing to an aesthetic inspiration gone politically wrong, is proved by the way he uses documentary material. Wherever possible his chosen archive footage either discredits other Yugoslav nations (hence scenes of Nazis being welcomed in Zagreb and Ljubljana), or shows the rotten West conspiring against Serbs.

When dealing with the present war, however, Kusturica refuses to use documentary footage - which might show, for example, the bombardment of Vukovar, or the three-year-long destruction of his native city by the Serbian army. Just so, he refuses to show pictures of the triumphalist farewell given in Belgrade to the Yugoslav army and its tanks as they went to wage war in Croatia and Bosnia against literally unarmed people.

Unnatural Disaster

'This war in Bosnia is a civil war', said Kusturica at the Cannes press conference - 'It is like an earthquake.' He described as a natural disaster a war which was politically and militarily prepared 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 major role was also 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 destroy 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 motivates Arkan and Serb Radical leader Vojslav Seselj).

Kusturica cannot resist expounding the additional argument that the world powers are to blame. In his film, the Blue Helmets are 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 fighting; attacked the foreign media for giving a false picture; insisted that the war in Bosnia was a 'civil war' in which the Bosnian army was attacking Serbs; and stressed a continuum of Croat fascism from World War II to the present day. Then he said - just as Slobodan Milosevic 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 really about love that will save the world. Such demagogy based on lies has been one of the worst insults suffered by the war's Bosnian victims.

This kind of demagogy - which would be received with derision even in Belgrade today - got by in Cannes. At that very moment the Bosnian Serbs were committing one of the worst massacres of the entire war in Tuzla, then taking several hundred UN soldiers hostage and broadcasting pictures of their humiliation. Just then, in Cannes, in front of 4,000 accredited journalists and the creme de la creme of world businessmen and posers, a film defending the people and ideas most responsible for this war and its crimes was awarded a major prize.

Kustorica's film - costing more than almost all the films made in the past by the large united Yugoslavia - was partly financed by Belgrade Television, the institution which with the army, bears most responsibility for this war. At Cannes Kusturica was flanked by the TV station's director Vucelic, one of the most hated figureheads of the Serb nationalist movement - a figure who should have been at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague rather than at the Film Festival.

Only a powerful and witty muse could have organised these events. In this beautiful and wealthy city, the representatives and favourites of a criminal regime came together with the Western Elite to act out a scenario based on duplicity, manipulation, stupidity and cowardice. Applauding themselves, their congratulatory phrases were 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, Western soldiers continue to be humiliated, while Serbia (which Kusturica is allegedly defending) is dying in the arms of Slobodan Milosevic and the Serb extremists whom he created and has taught to butcher. Like Kusturica, they did it all in the name of love, democracy, anti-fascism, Yugoslavia, and those beautiful slogans which in the mouths of such people make you even sicker than the war itself.

Stanko Cerovic works on the French radio station RFI, is Montenegrin by birth and a cousin of Milovan Djilas. This article was printed unabridged in Bosnia Report, August 1995.

Postscript

Emir Kustorica won fame in the West with his spectacularly beautiful, magical-realist Time of the Gypsies. Few observers pointed out that all the film's Gypsy characters were alcoholics, dreamers, child-stealers and pickpockets. The fact that the hero is a Slovenian bastard child now takes on a horrific dimension in the era of mass rapes carried out to 'make Muslim women carry little Serbs'. It is a cruel irony that these (then little-noticed) assumptions about blood and ethnic origin could be part of the vision of a director Bosnian Muslim by birth.

Film juries have not judged well recently. Cannes' Special Jury Prize last year was awarded to a Russian neo-communist idyll, Nikita Mikhalkov's Burned by the Sun (now showing in London to cries of 'masterpiece'). The Donatello award in Rome went to the Macedonian Milcho Manchevski's Before the Rain - a far more inquiring film but one which left its audience stunned by the presentation of violence as an inescapable mystical cycle. Dodging between London and the Balkans, it brought out both the Brandoesque charisma of its exiled star Rade Serbedzija and some interestingly suppressed themes of sexual ambiguity. In April Serbedzija gave a stunning stage duet with Vanessa Redgrave - farcical, poetic and painful - as a brain damaged survivor and his wife in The Liberation of Skopje. Spectacularly staged with live horses, pigeons and children, the play reiterated Yugoslavist wartime myths: Albanians and Muslims were startlingly absent from the heroic scene. That the play could have been written as late as 1977 was nearly as worrying as the fact that the Redgraves had chosen it for the centrepiece of their important 'Moving Theatre/Memory' season in London. The week before the play's first night, its director Lubisa Ristic left his exile in Paris to join the new 'Yugoslav United Left' party started by Milosevic's wife Mirjana. The Sarajevo Festival Theatre withdrew their performance in protest; no one in Britain reported their action sympathetically. British playwright David Edgar's Pentecost, set in an imaginary Balkan country (Croat/Macedonian/Romanian?) made riveting drama from meticulously observed post-communist nationalists and post-modern Western academics. The second half widened the scope to include asylum seekers at the gates of Fortress Europe, but proved its own point about their exclusion by casting sentimental European performers as Third World outcasts.

There will be a Benefit for Bosnia performance of Pentecost on Sunday 1 October, 2pm at the Young Vic. Proceeds to Medecins Sans Frontieres and Feed The Children. Tickets/donations: 0171 928 6363.

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