Kusturica unveils his student fest

Serbian director watches as Kustendorf bows

MOKRA GORA — Serbia Award winning Serbian film director Emir Kusturica had a vision when shooting “Life Is a Miracle” high in the mountains that border Bosnia four years ago.

Scanning the breathtaking sweep of pine-topped peaks that fringe the valley of Mokra Gora — literally wet mountain — the filmmaker spotted a “small island of land” lacking farmsteads, barns or any of the old log cabins that dot the fertile slopes here.

An idea came to him: to recreate something of the old Serbia in this unspoiled nature preserve by buying up old wooden houses and moving them to the sloping mountain pasture.

He had turned 50, and with two grown children, his thoughts had turned to a different phase in his life — building something lasting and finding a place for his soul in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

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He never intended to recreate a small wooden medieval-style town, but today Mechavnik is a community of dozens of small house and guest cabins complete with a bank, a church, a library, swimming pool and two Dolby film theaters, the best in the entire country.

Classed as a four-star hotel, the complex welcomed its first guests Jan. 14 for the opening of the Kustendorf Film and Music Festival.

“I started to think about the time ahead,” says Kusturica, a tall engagingly scruffy character with a tangle of uncombed hair.

“I wanted to be in a place where I could choose the people I lived with. Since I have a problem with democracy, I always joke that I want to be the mayor that chooses the citizens, rather than one chosen by the citizens. Mechavnik allows me to do that.”

The film festival — a weeklong, competitive, invitation-only retreat focusing on the work of student filmmakers from 12 countries — emerged from that vision.

Kusturica, who has been living in Mechavnik for much of the past four years, abhors the commercialization of film in today’s world and wanted to celebrate cinema in an environment free of advertising or sponsorship.

The Kustendorf — which means Kusturica’s Mountain — festival, which he and the Serbian Ministry of Culture support — meets those criteria.

Structured around daytime workshops with filmmakers such as Russia’s Nikita Mikhalkov and British director Michael Radford, whom Kusturica number among his influences, afternoon screenings and an evening competition program of student films finished off by midnight concerts in Mechavnik’s main cinema — a large hall cut into the hillside beneath a restaurant and swimming pool — Kustendorf is an ambitious project.

Weary of a film world that no longer “generates idealism” — which he observes Hollywood did so well from the 1930s until the 1970s when it switched to generating only money — Kusturica created an island of idealism for his festival.

“Kustendorf will never become commercial,” Kusturica says. “Next year I will expand it to bring in five African, five Asian and five South American films.”

With its quaint wooden cobbled streets and genuine old restored wooden structures — some of which date back 120 years — Mechavnik, far away from any other town, creates a small but vibrant space that suggests an earlier time when a single visit by Fellini to a film festival could influence cinematic trends for years.

The Kustendorf Fest is not without controversy — Mikhalkov, whose new film “12” opened the festival, is a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin who described his own Slav nationalist position on Serbia’s would-be break-away province of Kosovo as “the same as Russia’s” — one that runs counter to Western pressure for Belgrade to accede to independence for the largely Muslim and ethnic Albania region.

And the festival’s opening stunt, when 35mm copies of Bruce Willis action adventure blockbuster “Die Hard” were buried in a mock funeral, was a piece of histrionic agitprop deliberately designed to mock Hollywood.

But for the students who are the focus of the competition — which has screened an array of highly accomplished shorts ranging from Poland’s Magdalena Pieta’s sad and sordid glimpse of casual sex, “Everything Will Be” to young British documentary director Martin Hampton’s shocking depiction of lives blighted by obsessive hoarding, “Possessed” — it was a week in which to soak up the experience of world-famous directors, screen their work and immerse themselves in film away from any commercial pressures in an atmosphere that was both intimate and intensive.