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Best Of Enemies: Screenwriter Revisits Feud With Filmmaker Kusturica

Filmmaker Emir Kusturica (file photo)

Together they made movie history.

But their friendship didn't survive the war, and some might argue that neither man has scaled such creative heights since their acrimonious and very public falling out.

So at a poetry festival in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, over Christmas, Bosnian screenwriter Abdulah Sidran almost inevitably faced questions about his relationship with Sarajevo-born, internationally acclaimed director Emir Kusturica, who spends much of his time in Serbia, which he describes as his "homeland."

Speaking alongside a panel of other cultural figures, Sidran insisted that he remained close to many of his former acquaintances in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Bosnian writer and poet Abdulah Sidran in Belgrade on December 22, 2017..
Bosnian writer and poet Abdulah Sidran in Belgrade on December 22, 2017..

"Our countries were devastated, but I can personally attest that in the world of culture, hundreds of prewar friendships have survived."

However, Sidran said, his friendship with Kusturica "died a natural death, painless and by the will of God."

Days later, Kusturica responded by referring to Sidran as Bosnia-Herzegovina's "dead capital" -- a spent force -- having earlier referred to him as a "spiritual vagrant."

Sidran has previously claimed -- implausibly -- that the real Kusturica was in fact been killed defending Sarajevo against Serb forces in 1994 and replaced by a Serbian doppelgänger.

The iconic movie that launched Kusturica's international stardom, When Father Was Away On Business (1985), also gilded Sidran's reputation. The film was the story of a Bosnian family caught in the whirlwind of great political events -- the 1948 Tito-Stalin split that both led to a degree of democratization of Yugoslav politics and society but also ushered in a flood of false accusations, arrests, and the creation of a labor camp at Goli Otok that became a symbol of injustice in Tito's Yugoslavia. The film's plot is partly autobiographical: The father who is away on business is said to echo Sidran's own father, who was falsely accused of being a Stalin sympathizer and arrested in 1948.

Kusturica and Sidran also collaborated on Kusturica's first feature film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981), a coming-of-age story that was based on episodes from Sidran's youth.

Both films won major international awards -- in Venice and Cannes, among others -- and made Kusturica a hero in his hometown, as well as a household name throughout Yugoslavia.

But the projected third installment of Sidran's personal story was never filmed, and it is tempting to suggest that neither has managed to find an adequate replacement for the creativity of the other.

When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the two found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict and their personal feud has been simmering ever since.

As Serb forces tightened their noose around Sarajevo, subjecting the city to daily bombardment, news filtered out that Kusturica -- who was in Paris when fighting erupted -- had defended the actions of the Yugoslav Army. There was no food in the city, but some bars managed to stay open for a time, including one called the Majestic. There, Sidran would sit quietly as others expressed their disbelief and anger at Kusturica's stance.

At one point amid the siege on Sarajevo, news arrived that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had made Kusturica a present of a house on the Montenegrin coast. Many of the patrons of the Majestic were incensed, and some wondered if Kusturica was thinking about his parents, both of whom were still in the city under attack. Everyone looked in the direction of Sidran, the only close friend of Kusturica's among them.

After a long silence, Sidran said: "What a fool; he got a house but lost a city!"

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL)
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    Gordana Knezevic

    Gordana Knezevic writes the Balkans Without Borders blog for RFE/RL. She was the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.