Soccer's World Cup kicks off in Russia in less than two weeks, and one of the warmup acts is the Art-Football festival from May 25 to June 3.
That latter Moscow event -- staged to raise funds for seriously ill children -- is in its eighth year. Artists and performers slated to appear include award-winning director Emir Kusturica, in his roles as both a humanitarian and an unapologetic supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He featured on a Serbian soccer team that defeated its German counterpart on May 27, having already taken the stage with his band, No Smoking, and attended a special event in his honor at the Moscow Conservatory titled Vivat Kusturica.
The Serbian director has twice been awarded the main prize at Cannes, the Palm d'Or (in 1985 for the film When Father Was Away on Business, and in 1995 for Underground).
However, before Kusturica was a Serbian director and a champion of Serbian and Russian brotherhood based on shared culture and history, he was much more closely associated with his native Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Born into a Bosnian Muslim family in Sarajevo, Kusturica chose to be baptized Orthodox Christian in 2005. He attended Putin’s third presidential inauguration in 2012 and attributed his lack of success at Cannes in more recent years to his support for Putin.
It seems that he reached a crossroads in 1992 with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kusturica almost instantly went from hero to zero in his hometown when he gave his backing to the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army, which was then besieging Sarajevo and waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the rest of Bosnia.
He was a vocal supporter of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and reinvented himself as a Serbian director in subsequent years, endearing himself to nationalists in Belgrade. His endorsement of Putin’s Russia appears to be an extension of this adopted world-view and identity, as Kusturica considers the Russian president as not only the champion of Pan-Slavic Orthodox Christian culture but a bulwark against the West.
But for a brief moment in the midst of the Bosnian War, Kusturica seemed to waver between his commitment to the Serbian cause and the suffering of his Bosnian compatriots.
Kusturica was still revered in his native city when the war began -- he was in Paris at the time -- and so the disappointment was profound when, in a telephone interview with Sarajevo TV, he urged people to support the Yugoslav Army. This was the same army that -- as everyone could see -- was killing civilians and keeping Sarajevo under siege. Later, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Kusturica claimed that the European Union was responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and he blamed Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for starting the war.
It was beyond comprehension to many that Kusturica, who was worshiped by most people in Sarajevo before the war, had turned his back on his city. Many held out hope that it wasn’t true -- that it couldn’t be true. Perhaps, being so far away, he was simply unaware of what was happening on the ground.
And then, suddenly, confirmation arrived that the hope may have been justified.
It was March 1993, and Sarajevo had been under siege for almost a year. My newspaper, Oslobodjenje, was continuing to publish under the barrage of Serbian artillery, but paper supplies were running low and we were continually being forced to reduce the page count of our daily edition. We reported on the war and the events in the city, but all news from abroad was brought to us by foreign journalists. One day, the Oslobodjenje news desk received a fax from Paris: Kusturica had sent a story that he wanted to be published in our newspaper.
It was a cold March day, and every member of our wartime editorial board was bundled up to stay warm, as there was no heating. Kusturica’s piece was on the table in front of us. The title of the article was Rasim’s Horseshoe. It was about his random encounter with a Bosnian refugee, a miner from the village of Lopare, who had been tortured by Serb forces. They had nailed a horseshoe onto his foot. Kusturica had written a passionate account of his meeting with Rasim at the airport in Amsterdam. Rasim was on his way to some European hospital for surgery to repair his foot.
Around half of my colleagues were against publishing Kusturica’s piece, citing his earlier statements about the war and his public support for Milosevic. I was with the other half, as I believed -- or wanted to believe -- that after meeting Rasim, Kusturica perhaps finally understood that Muslims in Bosnia were seemingly being targeted -- killed, tortured, expelled from their homes -- simply because they were Muslims. I defended his right to have a late change of heart, faced with such compelling evidence. We prevailed, and Kusturica was published in Oslobodjenje. Here's an excerpt from Kusturica’s story:
“I had to see the sufferer Rasim from the [concentration] camp to reach that emotional tipping point, and to forget in an instant all the politics and history of the world.... I had to look into those gentle eyes that were asking me, 'Why, Emir?' to understand that there is no historical or other justification for nailing a horseshoe onto a man’s feet.”
However, although we were under siege, the story eventually made it to the outside world, and provoked immediate reaction from Belgrade. Kusturica, as a film director acclaimed throughout Europe, was a useful propaganda tool for a regime that was widely condemned for its actions and atrocities in Bosnia. The horseshoe story thus upset Milosevic’s backers in Serbia; Kusturica furiously backtracked, even denying that he had written the story in the first place.
That story is still invoked in regional media as a turning point in Kusturica’s affiliations. Since then, that narrative goes, the director has only redoubled his political commitments to Serbian nationalism and, by extension, Putin’s Russia.
In 2016, Putin presented Kusturica with the Order Of Friendship for his contributions to strengthening the friendship between the peoples and for the promotion of Russian language and culture abroad. Kusturica thanked Putin in Russian, recalling that at their first meeting he did not speak Russian:
“Dear Mr. Putin, when we met for the first time, I did not speak Russian; the second time, very little; and now I would like to thank you [in Russian] for this award.”
As Kusturica sings and plays in Moscow this month in the name of charity and humanitarian causes, and to lend his fame to Russia and its president, will he also recall the story of Rasim’s horseshoed foot?
(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)