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Where life is a miracle – Following Emir Kusturica on my last Balkan trip

(Last Updated On: 04/12/2019)

If you like Balkan movies by Emir Kusturica – a well-known director from the former Yugoslavia, you will definitely enjoy this article.

My friend Grzesiek went for the Balkan trip and visited some of the places known from Kusturica’s movies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. And then he agreed to write about those places for us.

This is definitely a new perspective on the Balkans and, if you are a movie fan, you should include some of these places in your Balkan itinerary. I already have plans to visit some of them in my next Balkans solo trip!


My first encounter with Kusturica’s movies

For the very first time, I went to the Balkans through the silver screen. I saw “Life is a miracle” by Emir Kusturica and fell in love with this region straight away.

Still in his films, the harsh reality and fairy tales are so mixed up, that no one can tell the difference.

That’s why one day I decided to go on a trip to Sarajevo and rural Serbia following the famous director. Just to check how much in his movies is about himself and how much about the magic of Balkans.

Kusturica Balkan trip

I’m pretty sure that the screening didn’t take place in a regular cinema. It must have been in one of the student movie projects where you get to see good “second hand” movies but they are played only once.

I had so much trust that the selected film will be good, and I didn’t even check what it is about. That’s why it was such a surprise for me.

Emir Kusturica movies are totally different from both American blockbusters and European melancholic alternative cinema.

The film combined the tragic plot with absurd humor. Till the very end, it was not clear which of them would prevail.

Everything was happening in the last days of Yugoslavia, in the wild beautiful mountains. An old railway line run through them, and the characters were involved in its renovation.

They lived in a lonely and lovely stain station. Unfortunately, just after its grand re-opening, the civil war started…

Podgorica train station

That scenes stayed in my memory 10 years later when I was traveling with a friend by train from Zagreb to Sarajevo during Croatia’s Independence Day.

It was cloudy, rainy, sleepy, but suddenly some music woke us up. We got to the window and on there we saw a lonely and lovely statin. On the platform, there was a small brass orchestra dressed in old fashioned in uniforms playing one patriotic song after another.

The mayor of the town was greeting travelers, wishing all the best because of the national holiday, and the passengers rewarded the musicians with applause.

The delay was getting bigger and bigger, but no one seemed to bother. It seemed as if we got inside the movie set of Emir Kusturica production, instead of the timetable, now we had to follow some crazy the scenario.

This was when I learned that this Balkan magical realism really existed. Later, I discovered that his films were much more linked to reality than one might think.

Visit Uzice Serbia

Balkans by Emir Kusturica – where to go?

Sargan Eight – the amazing narrow-gauge railway, which appeared in “Life is a miracle” – actually exists. The only difference is that it’s not situated in Bosnia (like in the movie) but in Serbia, just next to the Bosnian border, close to Uzice.

It was built around hundred years ago in Zlatibor mountains to connect Belgrade with Sarajevo and Dubrovnik.

A few decades later, it turned out to be inefficient and was closed. Its reconstruction in the 21st century was made possible by the support of Emir Kusturica.

He chose the place as a perfect scenery for the new movie. Enchanted by the area he constructed an ethnic village called Drvengrad near the highest station, Mokra Gora, in order to settle down here.

At that time Kusturica had already become quite rich and famous so that he could make his ideas alive not only in films. He also looked for a new home as he didn’t want to come back to the old one.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Emir Kusturica was born in Sarajevo in 1954 in a Serbian family. He grew up in the heart of communist Yugoslavia and in his works, he often criticized his home country.

Especially “Underground”, where the characters are told that World War II is going on for decades and they must keep hiding, is a metaphor for life under propaganda powered regime.

Even so, today Kusturica is a classic example of “yugonostalgia”. In his early life, ethnic and cultural identity didn’t play an important role. But suddenly, in the early 1990s, during the break-up of the country it became crucial.

In his autobiography “Where am I in all this history” he writes about this with a feeling of failure: “During the first democratic elections, Muslims, Serbs and Croats crushed us. We thought that in the Balkans you can be just an ordinary citizen. We have been defeated.”

When he identified himself as a Serb, he didn’t feel like coming back to post-war Sarajevo. Still, most of his autobiography are the memories of his hometown, so I decided to start my “Balkan movie trip” in Sarajevo.

I’ve been here before, so I do not feel pressure to visit tourist attractions. Instead, I look for places that would make a good movie scene. After all, it was the streets of Sarajevo that inspired teenage Kusta to make his film debut.

He suggested to his mentor that in one of the scenes the tram going down Tito street might mysteriously turn to the promenade – although there is no track on it – because this would be the character’s wish. He felt the magic of cinema from the very beginning.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Movie-like Sarajevo

I arrive in Sarajevo in a magical time, at the very end of Ramadan.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a secular state. Most people do not fast. The premises are open during the day, alcohol is available.

But as the neighboring Serbs and Croats speak the same language and share similar mentality, Bosnians preserve Islamic traditions as vital a part of their identity. That is why they like to wait with iftar (Ramadan dinner) until it gets dark and have it outside it with friends.

In Sarajevo, this moment is special. People set out to the Yellow Fortress which is towering over the city with some takeaway meals with them. Some spread blankets on the slope, others go to the very top.

Over there an old cannon is waiting. When the sun sets behind the mountains, a man in a folk costume appears. He pulls out a round package, puts it into the cannon and sets it on fire.

After a while, green fireworks explode over the city. This is the sign for everybody to start iftar. If I were to make a film about Sarajevo, this would be my first scene.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Following the cinematic trail I go from the fortress to a former cinema turned into an awesome club – Kino Bosna. Every Monday the place that looks unchanged for 30 years ago becomes even more retro style.

A band with a keyboard from one side and an accordion on the other starts playing old hits between the tables. I only recognize “Ederlezi”. The song is considered to be the most Balkan song of all time, especially since another famous artist from Sarajevo, Goran Bregovic put in the Kusturica film “Time of the Gypsies”.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Yugoslavian Roma people used to live in this neighborhood (Gorica) and so did Kusturica. That’s why the next day I am going for a walk around the place with the film director’s autobiography as my guidebook.

I find the high stairs where a seven-year-old Emir collapsed while carrying his first work of life to school – a huge model Titanic model.

On the way back I visit the recently opened War Childhood Museum. It gathers ordinary objects belonging to Bosnian children of the early ’90s, which became incredibly meaningful because of all the tragic history going on.

There is a sheet, that was used to cover the window and pretend that the house was abandoned because the snipers from the hills were shooting not only people on the streets but also to their homes. It used to be green, but now it’s almost completely white, which means these people had to wait in the dark for a really long time for the war to end.

I walk out of the museum and just outside I see children of Sarajevo playing football on the square as if nothing bad ever happened here. This would make the best “movie scene” of my entire trip.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Kusturica hasn’t come back to Sarajevo so far. In his recent films, he tries to talk about the Bosnian war without it.

Most of them are set in the countryside where the essence of Balkan identity might be hidden.

Usually, there is an idyllic village somewhere in the mountains. There are mysterious machines and strange vehicles. Characters that are wise and childish at the same time.

Funny old people and beautiful girls. Clumsy gangsters. Animals treated seriously as people. Crazy drunk parties.

Lots of music, especially ethno folk. Humor, passion, mysticism, tradition, magical realism…

In search of such motives, I find Kafana Promaja. It is located in a lonely wooden hut halfway to the Skakavac waterfall, north of Sarajevo.

The host apparently has a lot of time, because he is preparing drinks from every fruit or herb he can find. On the shelves, there are jars with different colors of liquid inside.

I do not know if I want to try everything or run away from this crazy laboratory.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Mokra Gora and Visegrad (Kustendorf and Andricgrad)

There are many more magical rural spots to come, as I’m finally heading east towards Serbia. This means passing through a really heartbreaking landscape.

Bosnian small towns look like Central Europe from two to three decades ago, and doesn’t feel like catching up with the modern world soon

The settlements are slowly disappearing as my bus enters empty, green mountains through tunnels cut in rocks during Yugoslavian times.

On my last stage to Serbia, I travel by hitchhiking, because there is no public transport in these parts of the country. I cross the border on foot and in Serbia I immediately switch to train tracks that run just next to the road.

Finally! This is the same line that starred in the “Life is a miracle”. If I hitched a ride with that strange blue vehicle from the movie that was able to run on train tracks It would be perfect.

However, the part of the line I’m walking on is not in use very often while the car is “parked” a bit further – next to Golubici station, where most of the movie scenes were shot.

Kusturica Balkan trip

I pass this station sometime later with the Nostalgia train which sets off from Mokra Gora.

The winding and spectacular Shargan Eight is now a tourist line. Old carriages go slowly, and from the speakers, you can hear the story of this line in two languages mixed with folk and turbofolk. The “movie station” can be visited on the way back during a special stop.

The name Golubici means doves, but in Serbian, it also refers to lovers.

In the film, the main character, Serb named Luka, receives the task of holding a Bosnian girl as a hostage in the building of the station. In a few days and unexpected romance starts between the two in spite of the war going on outside. And that is the miracle that the film is all about.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Drvengrad itself turns out to be a tourist trap. It’s not quite an open-air museum, more like its evil twin brother.

You have to pay for entrance, but there is not much to see inside unless you are a big fan of Eastern European kitsch and stuff.

Faces of Che Guevara, Yuri Gagarin, and Diego Maradona painted on a rustic cottage wall are not quite what you would expect from a world-class artist. And “Bruce Lee street” sign with a Cyrillic alphabet looks kind of cheesy.

The church in the center of the village is fake. Inside there is no altar, but a shop counter, where you can buy icons reduced to the size of souvenirs.

I guess if someone would like to get married here, the church will probably do the job. In the wedding movie, it will pretend to be a temple remembering medieval Serbia.

After all, this place is a bit of a movie set design, as it hosts the Kustendorf Film Festival every winter. The director’s friends come here all the way from Hollywood, which is why the rustic wooden huts are actually luxury apartments.

Maybe Kusturica deliberately created this place to look like this. I can imagine he peeks from his house on all these tourists taking selfies in front of the fake church and giggles quietly. That would even be like his sense of humor.

Kusturica Balkan trip

Kusturica’s second placemaking project seems more successful. It’s situated on the other side of the Bosnian border – in Visegrad near the Drina River.

Over the centuries, there was a water crossing here, but it was not until the Turkish times that in 1571 when the safe stone bridge was built. The story of this structure is told in “The bridge over Drina”, the best-known novel by Ivo Andrić.

He was born here, in Bosnian Visegrad, but felt more like a Serb, or rather a Yugoslavian. He is the only Nobel Prize laureate from this non-existent country.

People come to see the town know from the book and become disappointed because it doesn’t look even nearly like in the book. Only the famous bridge has survived until today.

Kusturica Balkan trip

That is why, “the last Yugoslavian”, that is Emir Kusturica, decided to build a monument for the first one, that is Ivo Andrić. And since he had proper contacts and a large budget, the “monument” actually became a small town, which was called Andrićgrad.

This is a vision of what Visegrad could look like if it were not for difficult history. At least that was the starting point. – Emir woke up with new ideas every day and ordered the architects to rearrange everything.

It was not easy, because construction work was already underway, – says Branislav from the local tourist organization, who guides me around the project.

Kusturica Balkan trip

He says it’s a pity that I came a bit late, as Kusturica was here just yesterday. Today he’s traveling to his band Non-Smoking Orchestra to play a concert somewhere in South America.

Ever since Kusta stopped cooperating with Goran Bregović, the members of this band make music for his films. Actually playing with the band seems to be more appealing for Emir than directing movies recently. His cinematic comeback “On the Milky Way” received poor reviews.

But when it comes to architecture he seems quite talented – in his own way. Andricgrad is an unfinished fantasy about the history of Serbia and Bosnia with a multiplex, film school, town hall, church, luxury hotel, and sponsor’s offices inside.

Branislav shows me the entrance to the mysterious tunnel behind the walls of Andrićgrad. He suggests that it will be a special underground for VIPs.

Thanks to it, they will drive straight into the hotel’s car park and will be in their rooms in a second. Probably they might feel like being in a movie too.

Kusturica Balkan trip


About the author: Full-time media-hacker, freelance journalist and a frequent vagabond. Loves how stories inspire epic travels and how trips become amazing stories themselves. Prefers flaneuring to sightseeing, hostels to hotels and trains to planes. Spends entire nights thinking of exotic destinations and ends up going to the Balkans again. Runs an Instagram instagram.com/tamnicniema (in Polish)

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