Maradona by Kusturica (Spain/France, 2008): A Political Documentary

September 13, 2008 at 1:16 am

Maradona by Kusturica (2008), an updated version of a documentary that was partially released in 2005 or 2006, played at Cannes in May 2008 and was released across France shortly thereafter. The posters advertising the film and featuring a campy-looking disheveled Kusturica in front of a Maradona mural were ubiquitous — all over the Paris metro, all over popular public hang outs like Les Halles or around MK2 Bibliotheque. I saw the film at the MK2 Quai de Loire/Quai de Seine complex in an afternoon screening which was attended by about 15 audience, not bad for a matinee on a weekday. So far the film has only played theatrically in France and Italy where Kusturica still has a strong fan base; an eventual DVD release is likely to give it a better international exposure. It is unlikely, however, to see this film released in the USA or the UK. I would be glad to be proven wrong on this prediction. However, I believe that British and American distributors are likely to find it awkward to make available to their domestic constituencies a film that is full of harsh comments on key politicians and political moves taken by the UK or the USA over the past decades (especially as some of these moves, like the Falklands war or the bombing of Serbia in 1999 enjoyed a degree of popular support here). It is an open question how such not releasing the film should be interpreted, and it is one that is raised in different ways throughout this political documentary, which asks essentially if there is space for opinions and worldviews that dare to differ.

Those who expect to see a portrait of football star Maradona here may be in for some disappointment. Surely, Maradona is present, there is extensive footage of him as a child, of him as the world’s best footballer, of him as a loving family man, of him as a vulnerable ill man in later years, of him as a recovered addict, and so on. The focus of the film, however, is on Maradona’s politics and his view of the imbalances of the world, especially where his politics intersects with Kusturica’s views. At the Cannes press conference on the film Maradona said that ‘we are not all obliged to think as the Americans do’ and pointed out that people living in different countries are entitled to interpret international politics from the point of view of where they stand in the world. It is precisely the combination of this conviction (the right to differ and speak up) and the high visibility of Maradona (and of Kusturica himself) that the director uses to turn the film into a political documentary that accommodates dissenting views that need to be aired.

There is quite a bit in Maradona by Kusturica that is not usually seen widely or positively covered in mainstream media in the West: Maradona’s admiration for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, his visit to Belgrade in the aftermath of Kosovo, Kusturica’s views on the adverse effects of IMF and G8 policies on countries in Latin America and elsewhere, plenty of animations that caricature American and British politicians. The film is most certainly not ‘politically correct’, an intended effect that the the director clearly seeks to achieve. Having endured all sorts of criticisms of his politics in the aftermath of Underground, Kusturica has clearly resolved to speak up his mind. It is probably this resolve that characterizes his recent work as well as the reason that brings Maradona and Kusturica together stronger than their love for football.

Writing in Screen International from Cannes, Jonathan Romney gave it a reserved review, saying that the film is as much about Maradona as it is about Kusturica. I believe he is right in this observation, but while Romney seemed to mean this in a critical sense, I see this merger between object and author of the documentary as one of its most interesting aspects. What brings the footballer and the director together is not simply Kusturica’s fandom and his admiration for Maradona, and it is not simply the fact that, as Kusturica said at the press conference at Cannes, both he and Maradona are very Dyonisian, in a sense that chaos dominates over rationality. Equally important is the fact that they both belong to peripheral nations that see themselves as having been wronged by America and Britain and that they are both prepared to use their celebrity to bring into the public space a piece of political commentary that is alive but confined to subterranean popular discourse and, if not brought to light by figures of their degree of visibility, would remain fully shut out.

The footage of Maradona’s faithful 1986 World Cup goal in Argentina’s semi-final against England is replayed repeatedly not just for the sake of football lovers, but mostly to reiterate all over again a situation where a weaker nation scores against an imperial power that has just defeated it in a war. In an interview in the French film magazine Split Screen Kusturica explains that the intention was for the film to evolve around the goal that Maradona scored after dribbling seven English players during this legenday match between Argentina and England, an event that is taking place not long after the war between Argentina and the UK over the Falkland islands. Each part of the film returns to a replay of this memorable goal, and each one of the seven English players passed, Kusturica says, is then ‘transformed into some personality that has made our lives difficult, likewise for the Argentinians and for the Serbs: Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush’ (Split Screen, Autimn, 2007, p. 6). Political personalities that that are featured as adverse figures in the animated sequences of the film include Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the Queen and even Prince Charles.

The film includes many memorable scenes which Kusturica has opted to leave without much commentary or contextualization as they are sufficiently expressive on their own. One is the specific fan ‘siege’ that Maradona experiences during a visit to Naples, showing the menace of crowds and revealing the downside of celebrity. Another one is a scene in a karaoke bar, apparently in Argentina, where the footballer has come with his wife, daughters and friends. At one point Maradona stands up and delivers a memorable performance at the mike, a seemingly improvised song in which he talks about his life, his ordeals, his mistakes, and his optimism. It is powerful and impressive. The point of the interconnectedness between the two men is clearly articulated throughout the film. At concerts of his rock group No Smoking Orchestra, Kusturica is routinely introduced as “The Diego Armando Maradona of cinema”. In the documentary he goes a step further and continuously uses excerpts of his own films, from Dolly Bell (1981) and When Father Was Away on Business (1985) to recent Life is a Miracle (2004) and Promise Me This (2007), thus cross referencing Maradona’s story with his own life, with his artistic concerns and vision.

Maradona and Kusturica compare in more aspects: they both achieve fame at a relatively early age, they both ‘have it all,’ they both have been exposed to harsh public criticism at one time or another, and they both are resolved to live as they believe they should, in spite controversy or adversity. In that, I believe that Maradona by Kusturica is a film of key importance in the director’s career, an act of soul-searching in the process of portraying someone else.

My favorite moment is the final scene, which is clearly set up by the director and yet has an incredible degree of spontaneity as it seems it came as a surprise to the footballer. Maradona is leaving the site where they just shot an interview just as one of two inconspicuously looking guys with guitars leaning at the graffiti-sprayed wall opposite begin singing a song, it is all very casual. One gradually realizes that the singer is Manu Chao, the famous transnational musician, who is performing his La vida es una tombola, the lyrics of which open with the conditional ‘If I were Maradona…’ and then go on saying how one would live and that one would not regret about anything. Maradona approaches and stands in front of the singer, listening. He is wearing dark glasses, but one can see that, behind the shades, he is crying.

© Dina Iordanova
13 September 2008

Time of the Gypsies: Punk Rock Opera, Emir Kusturica, 2007

August 24, 2008 at 12:42 am

On arrival in Paris in March earlier this year, I almost immediately came across large posters in the metro, advertising the extended run of Kusturica’s rock opera version of his acclaimed 1989 film Time of the Gypsies. There were only a few days left to go see the spectacle, but when I inquired I realized that I was not really prepared to spend the 75 Euro for the ticket; I did not think it would be worth it. As I did not go to see the live show, I cannot really judge if I was right in my decision to skip it. Eventually, however, I bought the DVD recording of the same show and have now watched it. It is available from FNAC and Amazon in France, in a French subtitled version. There is no evidence that this punk opera has played elsewhere, but this may change.

The forty-five strong team behind the opera is as follows: The music, much of which relies on recycling traditional Romani folk songs (including the famous Ederlezi), is credited to Dejan Sparavalo, Nenad Jankovic (a.k.a. Dr. Nele Karajlic), and Stribor Kusturica (the director’s son who has been authoring the music for most of his father’s recent films). The libretto is by Dr. Karajlic, and the score is performed by The No Smoking Orchestra and by The Garbage Serbian Philharmonics. On the DVD the performance is listed as using the Romani language (‘Tsigane’) but in fact there was singing in a variety of languages, including English and Serbian. Closely following the plot of the film, the show was disappointing in the degree to which it was being pedestrian: the score was more than mundane at moments, the singing mediocre for the most part, the acting overdone, the mise-en-scene crowded, the colours too bright; the cast was exuding forced excitement that lacked in endearment.

I personally believe it is a pity to see the wonderful Time of the Gypsies and its magic realist imagery of recycled into such brash inferiority. But then, it is the director’s right to exploit his material in ways that he sees fit. And the material is all here: Flocks of ducks cross the scene, cardboard boxes move around, flying brides and ascending protagonists abound. All of Kusturica’s trademark iconography is mobilized for the enjoyment of his dedicated French fans who enthuse at the appearance of each one of these familiar images. In case this is not enough, there are also dwarfs and soap bubbles. Occasional scenes from the film (e.g. the magnificent river vista from Perhan’s first dream) are used on the background, projected on the stage with the image of the actor currently playing Perhan, superimposed on it (with his sweet looks, this one is miles removed from the bespectacled charm of the late Davor Dujmovic, who played in the original film).

In the context of viewing the DVD, I could not help thinking yet once again that the continuous close collaboration with Dr. Nele Karajlic is Kusturica’s biggest liability of recent years. The history of the friendship between the two can be traced back to Sarajevo over nearly three decades, and is rooted in the contex of the ‘surrealist’ punk group of which the director was part back in his native town (see Top Lista Nadrealista, 1984). Dr. Karajlic, a rock musician, resurfaced as a pillar of Kusturica’s creative entourage after the director’s much publicized split with acclaimed composer Goran Bregovic (who has since pursued a successful international career with his Orchestra for Weddings and Funerals). Dr. Karajlic, who authored the music for Black Cat,White Cat (1998), is the driving force behind the No Smoking Orchestra and behind many of the noisy and portentious commercial ventures to the marketing of which Kusturica has lent his name over the past several years (concert tours, CD releases, etc.). In the punk opera Dr. Karajlic appears in the role of Ahmed, the Godfather, which he squanders with unconvincing stage presence, obtuse acting, and ghastly singing in heavily accented English — all these skills applied intentionally in an evidently sound effort to sicken and put off.

The accompanying ‘Making of…’ documentary shows Kusturica and Dr. Karajlic bickering over the idea of an ‘opera’, with Kusturica defending it and Dr. Karajlic, a dedicated punk rocker, disputing it. They end up at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where each one of them leaves a little note with a wish. Kusturica wins and the opera materializes. The rest of the documentary shows various stages of the preparations and the rehearsals. It also includes a shot featuring a long line of people who are queuing in front of the Bastille Opera, allegedly to get themselves tickets to the event. Well, it is a known fact that the French evidently still like Kusturica, even though some comments made by my French acquaintances suggested that his latest feature, Promise Me, has prompted some cooling down even among his most hard-core fans.

© Dina Iordanova
24 August 2008

The film Time of the Gypsies (1989), a largely unavailable masterpiece, has finally been released on a DVD in France (unfortinately, it only has got French subtitles). You can buy it through the link below. See also my book, Emir Kusturica (London: Britsh Film Institute, 2002).