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Emir Kusturica on Joe Strummer Street, Drvengrad, the Serbian village he created (courtesy Gazprom Neft press centre)



Adishevelled man in a saggy blue T-shirt, apparently exhausted to the brink of coma, sits in a windowless room pouring out his visions of horror and apocalypse. “The West will invade Russia . . . We are witnessing the destruction of Europe: the elites create crises in the Middle East, create wars, create an influx of migrants, a future in which the destruction of Europe is their plan . . . migrants will exchange the blood of Europe and destroy nation states . . .” Wow! Who’s up next? David Icke on Rothschilds and lizards?

Actually, it’s not supposed to be that sort of event. Meet the celebrated Serbian film director Emir Kusturica at home in his isolated self-built wooden village,   Drvengrad, near the Bosnian border, hosting an apparently harmless festival devoted to young local and Russian classical-music students. Happily, however, it seems my fantasies of stumbling on a Bond-villain mountain hideout might be gratified. Kusturica, a cinematic visionary of baroque imagination behind such feverishly energetic films as Underground, Black Cat, White Cat and Time of the Gypsies, twice winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, has in recent years become an avid mouthpiece of the new Russian propaganda, using his position as esteemed rebel of the movie world to spread the Putinian gospel.

Accordingly, a Russian press corps has descended on Serbia to beam out his insights: Tass and Izvestia for the Russian audience, Russia Today (RT) for lucky Western viewers. Somewhere in an underground bunker the competition between teenage musicians goes on — sometimes you see pallid little things emerge blinking into the sunlight — while the main event is evidently the man himself and the interviews he eventually (and with a top-marks-for-style show of reluctance) grants. Because it’s not easy to pin him down: he vanishes for hours on end, his entourage enjoins us “not to approach Emir without an arrangement”, his wife is alert to raise her hand between his face and questing phone-cameras, and interviews are serially deferred as the Professor (as they call him round here) is sleeping, in a bad mood, feeling like shit.

My own presence here, the only Western journalist, is slightly puzzling. But it’s not every day Gazprom, the government-controlled Russian energy company, calls you up and invites you to the festival it is sponsoring, and as a Russian-speaker involved with the country for more than 30 years, with the bait of Kusturica and some great performers (Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, French-Serb superstar violinist Nemanja Radulović, legendary American guitarist Gary Lucas), it was an offer I was unlikely to refuse.

The venue itself is lovely: an “ethno-village” (evidently this doesn’t sound sinister in Serbian) built a decade ago by Kusturica after the local filming of his Life is a Miracle, used since for the annual Küstendorf film festival; it perches amid pine-clad foothills of the Dinaric Alps, its steep chalet rooves feeling very Swiss until you spy the Orthodox church and note the Cyrillic of the street names: Federico Fellini, Joe Strummer, Che Guevara. Stencilled pictures of Dostoyevsky, Yuri Gagarin and Diego Maradona adorn the walls; vintage Trabants and Skodas sprout on street corners. The dungeon where the children are sawing away on their fiddles is named after Noam Chomsky. It’s like an outdoor manifestation of a bolshy teenager’s bedroom — can this be what the inside of Kusturica’s head looks like?

The origins of Serbo-Russian blood-brotherhood go way back, rooted in Orthodoxy, 19th-century wars of liberation, and a peculiar fantasy that they “speak the same language”. In fact the languages (as with English and Friesian) diverged over a thousand years ago, though many Serbian-type words entered Russian via the church language. It is notable, when Kusturica is rhapsodising to the Russian media on this intense and mystic bond, he has to do it in English.
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