1. At the time of Underground’s release Kusturica was known internationally as a Bosnian director of Muslim descent. After the controversy surrounding the film and the Yugoslav wars of succession he now identifies himself as Serbian Orthodox. [return to page 1 of essay]

2. I want to make this argument specifically in relation to Underground and would not wish to extend it beyond this film, especially in the light of Kusturica’s public statements in the late 90s and since, culminating in his public support for the Serbian nationalist campaign “Solidarity – Kosovo is Serbia” formed in the final months of negotiations for Kosovo independence. Kosovo finally declared itself to be an independent sovereign state on February 17th 2008.

3. The New Primitivs spelt their name without the “e” (Levi 63 ft. 4).

4. In this section I draw on Iordanova (2002), ch. 1; Gocic (2001), ch. 1. The best account of the New Primitivs so far published in English is Pavle Levi’s (2007), ch. 2.

5. See Monroe (2005) for an account of the NSK.

6. Kusturica plays base for the renamed No Smoking Orchestra and his son is now their drummer. The Orchestra scored Kusturica’s last two feature films, and Super 8 Stories is a documentary of their recent European tour. As Levi points out though, since 1997 there have been two No Smoking Orchestras, one in Belgrade consisting of those members of the band who sought refuge there during the Bosnian war and the other in Sarajevo consisting of those who remained in the besieged city (62).

7. Levi notes that Kusturica’s version of magic realism differs significantly from that of Gabriel García Márquez’s; whereas Márquez strove for the poetic transformation of the object world, Kusturica saw Yugoslav reality itself as enchanted. Furthermore, “in this vision the use of magical reality as the site of an opposition to the various forms of social and political reification does not automatically preclude its potential to also serve as the subject matter for a national panegyric” (86-87).

8. I draw extensively in this section on the work of Magaš (1993) and Woodward (1995).

9. The relationship between modern Yugoslavia and its predecessor as well as the question of whether or not Tito’s partisans led a genuine social revolution became highly contested in the period I am concerned with here (the 1980s and 90s) as it brought into question the very legitimacy of the federal state and its constitution, see Magaš ch. 1.

10. Woodward notes that the drive towards centralization to address the economic crisis facing Yugoslavia was not initially motivated by “Greater Serb Nationalism” but by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself. The IMF attributed many of the economic problems facing Yugoslavia with the “excessive decentralization of the banking and foreign exchange systems” and it urged greater federal control over the economy and the Central Bank. In 1987 the IMF made further support for Yugoslavia conditional upon these changes and the reform of the 1974 constitution (74-82). Slovenia was the most outspoken opponent of these changes and in October 1987 walked out of the federal parliament (along with Croatia) refusing to contribute any longer to the federal budget.

11. The situation is by no means as straight forward as this simple opposition between liberal, democratic, reformers and hardline, totalitarian, nationalists suggests. Woodward points out that Miloševic was a 1980s liberal in the sense that he combined economic liberalism with political conservativism, a trend that we can see right across Europe and North America at the time and one reason why the West supported him until the early 1990s (106). On the other hand, the wealthier more Western oriented regimes, such as Slovenia, were in fact more conservative and nationalistic in their response to the issue of political and economic reforms (61).

12. Woodward observes that both the EU and the US repeatedly failed the former Yugoslavia by prematurely recognizing the national sovereignty of the new states without any accompanying guarantee of minority rights (143); a mistake they have once again repeated, I might add, with the recognition of Kosovo.

13. Strictly speaking the Yugoslav army occupied Bosnia to maintain the territorial integrity of the country, something it was legally entitled to do, in practice, however, the JAL had now become irredeemably associated with Serbia and its territorial aspirations.

14. The antagonism between Kusturica and his fellow Bosnians began in 1992 when he published a plea to stop the war in Bosnia and criticized the nationalists who had started it. Branka Magaš also reports a meeting that she had with Kusturica in Slovenia during the filming of Time of the Gypsies where he strongly condemned nationalism (Magaš 134).[return to page 2 of essay]

15. In response to this argument Levi remarks that Kusturica made no attempt to show Bosnian Serbs committing atrocities such as the destruction of Vukovar in Croatia or the siege of Sarajevo. “So much,” he concludes, “for Underground as a cinematic contribution to the critical discourse on selective humanism” (98).

16. Kusturica simply ridiculed critics such as Finkielkraut rather than engage seriously with their criticisms. See Finkielkraut’s original article, Kusturica’s response to it and Finkielkraut’s unapologetic reply after finally seeing the film on the website:

17. As Bjelic argues, this comparison is rather ‘a hard sell’ and paraphrasing Sartre’s comment regarding “lazy Marxists” writes ‘Yes, Kusturica, like Karadžic, poeticises “the wild Serb man” but not every “wild Serb” is Kusturica; yes, Karadžic is a poet, like Kusturica, but can Karadžic make [Underground]?’ (2005 119 ft 29).

18. For a fuller critique of Žižek’s reading of Kusturica see Homer (2007) and in particular his failure to account for his own position and the rise of Slovene nationalism during the period this critique of Underground was developed.

19. If we look at central wedding scenes in When Father Was Away on Business or Time of the Gypsies we can see a similar pattern emerging.

20. The equation of socialism with fascism is a specifically cold war ideology and when it is resurrected again today, as Žižek has argued, it has particularly unsavoury political connotations. Such a view results in a profoundly reactionary view of history whereby fascism inevitably becomes “the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the communist threat” (2005, 8). Even given the reactionary nature of Kusturica’s current politics I do not think this is a view he would be arguing for.

21. When Blacky is captured by the Nazis he is tortured through electrocution. However, as an ex-lineman, he can absorb electrical current to the point that it kills the average person. [return to page 3]

22. See Ian Parker (2007) for a discussion of the psychoanalytic understanding of over-identification and some of its problems as a political strategy.

23. Natalija repeats this line again in Part II as she and Marko make-up after another fight about his deceptions.

24. Iordanova has taken this modified list of characteristic features from Igor Krstic (1999 145), who has in turn paraphrased Robert Rosenstone’s ( 1996 206). For my own views on postmodern historiography see Homer (2006).

25. See Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. This film was also greeted with accusations of Serb propaganda upon release.

26. It is not clear, however, that Hegel ever wrote this and Marx seems to be developing the idea from his correspondence with Engels. Marx, of course, never believed that history repeated itself in this fashion.

27. Underground, for example, makes explicit reference to both Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which again suggests that Kusturica is locating his film within a tradition of anti-war cinematic production (see Iordanova (2002), ch. 3 for a discussion of the intertextual references and “makeovers” in Underground).

28. See Krstic (2000) for a discussion of the both Hollywood and domestic references in Pretty Village, Pretty Flame that share many similarities with Underground and locate Dragojevic’s film in the traditions of Black Wave film, post-classical Hollywood westerns and critical Vietnam movies.

29. See Šešic (2006) for a discussion of Walter Defend Sarajevo and Levi 64-67 for an analysis of the New Primitivs’ interest in the film.


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Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. United Artists, 1979.

Black Cat, White Cat/Crna macka, beli macor. Dir. Emir Kusturica. USA Films (USA), Artificial Eye (UK), Komuna (Yugoslavia), 1998.

Do You Remember Dolly Bell?/Sjecašli se Dolly Bell?. Dir. Emir Kusturica. International Home Cinema (USA), Artificial Eye (UK), 1981.

Life is a Miracle/Zivot je cudo.Dir. Emir Kusturica. Artificial Eye (UK), 2004.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame/Lepa sela, lepo gore. Dir. Srdjan Dragojevic. Fox Lorber (USA),1996.

Super 8 Stories. Dir. Emir Kusturica. Orfeo Films International, BFI Programme Unit/ICA Cinema (UK), 2001.

Time of the Gypsies/Dom za vešanje. Dir. Emir Kusturica. Artificial Eye (UK) 1989.

Underground: Once Upon a Time There Was a Country/Podzemlje:Bila jednom jedna zemlja. Dir. Emir Kusturica. New Yorker Films (USA), Artificial Eye (UK), Komuna (Yugoslavia), 1995.

Walter Defends Sarajevo/Valter brani Sarajevo. Dir. Hajrudin “Šiba” Krvavac, Bosna Film, 1972.

When Father was Away on Business/Otac na služenom putu. Dir. Emir Kusturica, Cannon Films (USA), Artificial Eye (UK), 1985.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism/WR — Misterije organisma. Dir. Dušan Makavejev. Cinema 5 Distributing, 1971.


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