Since the mid-2000s, Kusturica's primary residence has been in Drvengrad, a town built for his film Life Is a Miracle, in the Mokra Gora region of Serbia. He had portions of the historic village reconstructed for the film. He is a member of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of the Republika Srpska since 9 November 2011.
Kusturica was born in Sarajevo, the son of Murat Kusturica, a journalist employed at the Sarajevo's Secretariat of Information, and Senka Numankadić, a court secretary, Emir grew up as the only child of a secular Serb non-observant Muslim family in Sarajevo, the capital of PR Bosnia and Herzegovina, a constituent republic within FPR Yugoslavia.
A lively youth, young Emir was by his own admission a borderline delinquent while growing up in the Sarajevo neighbourhood of Gorica. Through his father's friendship with the well-known director Hajrudin "Šiba" Krvavac, 17-year-old Emir got a small part in Krvavac's 1972 Walter Defends Sarajevo, a partisan film funded by the Yugoslav state.
In 1978, Kusturica graduated from the film school (FAMU) at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, which is why he is sometimes considered a part of the Prague film school, an informal group of Yugoslav film directors who studied at FAMU and shared similar influences and aesthetics. After graduating from FAMU, Kusturica began directing made-for-TV short films in Yugoslavia.
He made his feature film debut in 1981 with Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, a coming-of-age drama that won the prestigious Silver Lion for Best First Work at that year's Venice Film Festival. The same year, at the age of 27, he became lecturer at the newly established Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo, a job that he performed until 1988. He was also art director of Open Stage Obala (Otvorena scena Obala).
Kusturica's second feature film, When Father Was Away on Business (1985), earned a Palme d'Or at Cannes and five Yugoslav movie awards, as well as a nomination for an American Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Kusturica wrote the screenplays for both Do You Remember Dolly Bell? and When Father Was Away on Business. In 1989 Kusturica earned more accolades for Time of the Gypsies, a film about Romani culture and the exploitation of their youth. In 1989 he was a member of the jury at the 16th Moscow International Film Festival.
Kusturica continued to make highly regarded films into the next decade, including his American debut, the absurdist comedy Arizona Dream (1993). He won the Palme d'Or for his black comedy epic, Underground (1995), based upon a scenario of Dušan Kovačević, a noted Serbian playwright. He also taught Film Directing at Columbia University's Graduate Film Division.
In 1998, he won the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion for Best Direction for Black Cat, White Cat, a farcical comedy set in a Gypsy (Romany) settlement on the banks of the Danube. The music for the film was composed by the Belgrade-based band No Smoking Orchestra.
In 2001, Kusturica directed Super 8 Stories, a documentary road and concert movie about The No Smoking Orchestra, of which he is a band member. He was appointed President of the Jury of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. His film, Maradona, a documentary on Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, was released in Italy in May 2007. It premiered in France during the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. His film Promise Me This premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. In June 2007, Kusturica directed the music video to Manu Chao's single "Rainin in Paradize", from the latter's forthcoming album.
On 8 September 2007, Kusturica was appointed a UNICEF National Ambassador for Serbia, alongside Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Janković and Aleksandar Đorđević.
Since January 2008 he has organized the annual private Küstendorf Film Festival. Its first installment was held at Drvengrad, a village built for his film Life Is a Miracle, from 14 to 21 January 2008. His next film, Cool Water, is a comedy set against the background of a Middle East conflict. Filming started in November 2010 in Germany. It is the first time Emir Kusturica directed a film which he did not write.
During the promotion of his autobiography in 2010, Kusturica was asked why he thinks his cinematic style translates well in the West when so many Eastern European, Yugoslav or Serbian authors never managed to do the same:
At the 64th Cannes Film Festival, held 11–22 May 2011, Kusturica presided over the jury of the Un Certain Regard section of the festival's official selection. On 14 May, in Cannes, he was invested with the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France.
In September 2012 Emir Kusturica accepted the offer to become the head juror of the first Saint Petersburg International Film Festival. During the festival Kusturica also performed for the residents and guests of Saint Petersburg with his band "The No Smoking Orchestra"
During the last months of 2013, Kusturica started shooting a documentary film on the life of the Uruguayan president José Mujica, whom he considers "the last hero of politics".
Kusturica currently acts as the president of the Ski Association of Serbia.
After numerous film cameo appearances over the years, Kusturica's first sizable acting role took place in The Widow of St. Pierre, a 2000 movie by director Patrice Leconte, where he played a convict on the French island colony of Saint Pierre.
In 2002, Kusturica appeared as an electric guitar player/security specialist in The Good Thief, directed by Neil Jordan.
In the French movie L'affaire Farewell (2009), he played the role of a Russian KGB agent, Colonel Sergei Gregoriev.
In mid-1986, Kusturica, already an accomplished film director at the time, started playing bass guitar in Zabranjeno Pušenje, a Sarajevan punk rock outfit that had been the main driving force behind the New Primitivism movement. In addition to being on friendly terms with the guys and admiring their work, Kusturica's inclusion in the group had to do with the difficult situation Zabranjeno Pušenje found itself in following the political and media scandal caused by the verbal offence committed by their frontman Nele Karajlić. The so-called 'Marshal affair' that played out throughout late 1984 and early 1985 severely limited the band's access to media, causing its second album to sell poorly; additionally, three of the six members left the group in light of its bleak commercial prospects. Therefore, in 1986 as the band was still reeling from the scandal and devising strategy for the future, the thinking behind bringing Kusturica on board was that having the famous and celebrated film director affiliated with Zabranjeno Pušenje would help it get over the media bans it faced.
Kusturica's contribution included playing bass on three track from the band's third studio album Pozdrav iz zemlje Safari as well as composing the music for the "Probušeni dolar" track on the same album. Furthermore, he directed the video for the track "Manijak", which was deemed controversial, receiving a television ban due to vague visual allusions to the Agrokomerc Affair, yet another political scandal brewing in Bosnia at the time. Still, with hit songs like "Balada o Pišonji i Žugi", "Hadžija il bos", and "Dan Republike", the band managed to regain its popularity and commercial success. Though never fully involved in the band's day-to-day life, Kusturica left Zabranjeno Pušenje in 1988.
Kusturica returned to the group following the Black Cat, White Cat film and the band's name changed to Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra. In 1999, the No Smoking Orchestra recorded a new album, Unza Unza Time, produced by the Universal record company, as well as a music video, directed by Emir Kusturica. The band has been touring internationally since 1999. The musician and composer Goran Bregović has composed music for three of Kusturica's films: Time of the Gypsies, Arizona Dream, which featured Iggy Pop; and Underground.
Kusturica's autobiography, Smrt je neprovjerena glasina (Death is an Unverified Rumour), was published in October 2010 in Belgrade by Novosti AD. The launch took place on 26 October during the Belgrade Book Fair and was attended by Nele Karajlić, Dušan Kovačević, foreign minister Vuk Jeremić, Vojislav Koštunica, etc. Initially released only in Serbia, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska, the book's first printing of 20,000 copies quickly sold out. The second printing of 32,000 copies was out in November and it too sold within weeks. On 8 December, the third printing in 40,000 copies was out and promoted a day later at Belgrade's Dom Sindikata. In February 2011, a fourth printing with further 10,000 copies was out and soon the sale of the 100,000th book was announced. The final number of copies sold by the publisher was 114,000.
Translations were published in Italy (translated by Alice Parmeggiani) on 30 March 2011 under the title Dove sono in questa storia ("Where am I in this Story"), in France by JC Lattès on 6 April 2011 as Où suis-je dans cette histoire ?, and in Germany in September 2011 as Der Tod ist ein unbestätigtes Gerücht. In 2012, the book was published in Bulgaria as Cмъpттa e нeпoтвъpдeн cлуx, in Greece as Κι εγώ πού είμαι σ' αυτή την ιστορία;, in Romania as Unde sunt eu în toată povestea asta, and in Hungary as Hogy jövök én a képbe?.
Kusturica's second book, a fictional novel Sto jada (Hundred Pains), got released in Serbia on 24 April 2013 by Novosti AD in the initial printing of 35,000 copies. On 6 June, the second printing came out in the circulation of 25,000. The book's translated form was released in France in January 2015 by JC Lattès as Étranger dans le mariage.
Drvengrad (meaning Wooden Town) is a traditional village that Kusturica built for his film Life Is a Miracle. It is located in the Zlatibor District near the city of Užice, two hundred kilometers southwest of Serbia's capital, Belgrade. It is located near Mokra Gora and Višegrad, best known for Yugoslav Ivo Andrić's Nobel-winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina.
During 2007, Kusturica and Nele Karajlić prepared a punk opera, Time of the Gypsies. The initial idea came five years earlier in 2002 from Kusturica's collaborator Marc di Domenico while the support of the Paris Opera director Gérard Mortier got the project rolling. Basing the production on his eponymous 1988 film, Kusturica wrote the libretto by adapting the story of the Gypsy youth from the Balkans relocating to Italy in order to obtain money for his ill sister's surgery. The director cast young Serbian folk singers Stevan Anđelković and Milica Todorović in the roles of Perhan and Azra, respectively, while the experienced Karajlić took the role of Ahmed Đida. The music in the original movie had been composed by Goran Bregović; however, since Kusturica and he have not been on speaking terms since the late 1990s, those songs couldn't be used. The all-new score was composed by Dejan Sparavalo of The No Smoking Orchestra.
The premiere took place in June 2007, at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, to positive reviews. Following the vast open stage of Bastille, the show was performed in smaller arenas. In March 2008, the production was staged in Paris' Palais des congrès.
In fall 2010, the production was staged in Belgrade at Sava Center.
On 29 June 2012, the opera was staged in Banja Luka at the City Stadium, for the very first time under the open skies, with 10,000 people in attendance. This was followed with the July staging in Cartagena, Spain, as part of La Mar de Músicas de Cartagena.
Future staging of the punk opera is scheduled for August 2013 in Krasnodar, Russia, during Kubana Festival.
Since 2008, Drvengrad hosts the annual Küstendorf Film and Music Festival, which showcases films and music from all around the world as well as a competition programme for student short films. The festival is known for not having a red carpet as well as none of the popular Hollywood festival artifacts.
The reverence Kusturica enjoys in the film circles along with his professional and personal contacts ensure the arrival of top guests from the European and world cinema every year. The festival hosted global stars Johnny Depp and Monica Bellucci along with Nikita Mikhalkov, Gael García Bernal, Abel Ferrara, Kim Ki-duk, Audrey Tautou, etc.
On 28 June 2011 Kusturica started the construction project of Andrićgrad (also known as Kamengrad, meaning Stone Town), located in Višegrad, Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was scheduled to be completed by 2014. Andrićgrad is located several kilometers from Kusturica's first town Drvengrad, in Serbia. Andrićgrad will be used as a filming location for his new film "Na Drini ćuprija", based on the book The Bridge on the Drina, by Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Ivo Andrić. His last name is used in the town name Andrićgrad, meaning "Town of Andrić" in Serbian.
Kusturica is married to Maja Mandić; the couple have two children: Stribor and Dunja.
He currently lives in Drvengrad, Serbia, the village which he had built for his film Life Is a Miracle. Kusturica holds dual Serbian and French citizenship.
On Đurđevdan (St. George's Day) in 2005, he was baptised into the Serbian Orthodox Church as Nemanja Kusturica (Немања Кустурица) at the Savina monastery near Herceg Novi, Montenegro. To his critics who considered this the final betrayal of his Bosniak roots, he replied that:
Despite the aforementioned conflict of religion, Kusturica refused to see himself as either a Bosniak or Serb. Instead, he had continued to insist that he was simply a Yugoslav.
When his mother was on her deathbed he wanted to find out his ancestry and learnt that the origin of the Kusturica family stemmed from two Orthodox Christian branches. An ancestor of his, who helped build the Arslanagić bridge in the 18th century, hailed from Bileća and the Babić family. According to the studies of geographer Jevto Dedijer (1880–1918) in the Bileća region (1902): the Kusturica family lived in a čopor (grouped area, literally "pack") in the village of Plana; they had eight houses next to the Kozjak family (four houses), northwest across a field from the Avdić family (23 houses). In Granica, there was a family surnamed Kusturica which had left Plana 80 years earlier. According to the Avdići, their progenitor Avdija Krivokapić, an Islamized Montenegrin, reportedly was honoured by the Sultan for his military service and on the way home to Herzegovina, in Kyustendil, he bought a gypsy and brought him to Plana; this gypsy was, according to them, an ancestor of the Kusturica family. The story, however, as was common, was motivated by traditional disputes of neighbouring families regarding status in the village. According to Savo Pujić, an ancestor was Hajdarbeg Kusturica who was a čauš (officer) who lived in Volujak and was said to have been fair, having repurchased Muslim slaves, protected Orthodox clergy and his subject peasants. The name is derived from kustur, an Old Slavic word for dull knives, sabres, etc., most often referring to sabres.
At the 2007 parliamentary elections, he gave indirect support to Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica and his center-right Democratic Party of Serbia. In 2007, he also supported the Serbian campaign Solidarity - Kosovo is Serbia, a campaign against the unilateral separation of the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Regarding Vladimir Putin, he said in 2012: "If I was English I would be very much against Putin. If I was American I would even fight with him, but if I was Russian I would vote for him". Kusturica was present at the Kremlin for Putin's third inauguration as president in May 2012. He has expressed support for the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.
Kusturica was awarded the Order of St. Sava, First Class, for his selfless care and presentation of the Serbian nation in the world, on 12 May 2012. On 4 November 2016 he received the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in Moscow. He communicated in Russian at the event.
Kusturica and his work have provoked controversy at home and abroad. Underground, scripted by Dušan Kovačević, was partly financed by state-owned Yugoslav television. It recounted the history of Yugoslavia from World War II until the conflict in the 1990s. Some Bosnian and French critics claimed the film contained pro-Serb propaganda.
French philosopher and writer Alain Finkielkraut, a supporter of the Croatian president Franjo Tuđman during the 1990s, denounced the Cannes Film Festival's jury award, saying:
In recognizing "Underground", the Cannes jury thought it was honouring a creator with a thriving imagination. In fact, it has honoured a servile and flashy illustrator of criminal clichés. The Cannes jury ... praised a version of the most hackneyed and deceitful Serb propaganda. The devil himself could not have conceived so cruel an outrage against Bosnia, nor such a grotesque epilogue to Western incompetence and frivolity.
It was later revealed that Finkielkraut had not seen the film before writing his criticism. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy made a film criticizing Underground. In a discussion with Levy, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said:
I hope we share another point, which is – to be brutal – hatred of [director] Emir Kusturica. Underground is one of the most horrible films that I've seen. What kind of Yugoslav society do you see in Kusturica's Underground? A society where people fornicate, drink, fight – a kind of eternal orgy.
Sarajevo-born novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who emigrated to the United States before the war, said Underground downplayed Serbian atrocities by presenting "the Balkan war as a product of collective, innate, savage madness."
Andrej Nikolaidis, a Montenegrin writer and columnist, criticized Kusturica for appearing to agree with Slobodan Milošević's propaganda during the Bosnian War.
In May 2004, Nikolaidis wrote in the Monitor magazine:
Considering he proclaimed his dead father a Serb, and himself, Emir, an Orthodox Christian, he easily chose his own in the Bosnian War. He recognized them in Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. He wasn't there to fire cannon barrages, but whenever he could, with his artistic and media get-up he provided them an alibi for every killed Muslim who didn't want to admit that he was originally an "Orthodox Christian".
Kusturica sued Nikolaidis and the Monitor newspaper for civil damages at the Supreme Court of Montenegro. In the end, Nikolaidis was ordered to pay $6,490 to Kusturica for calling the famed director a "media star of Milosevic's war machinery". The judge ruled that the evidence was not credible enough. In the end Nikolaidis and the paper were fined 12,000 euros for breaking the code of journalism by calling Kusturica "stupid, ugly and corrupt" in the article.
In October 2010 Kusturica withdrew from the jury of Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival after being publicly criticized and accused by Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu and Turkey's minister of culture Ertuğrul Günay over his alleged remarks and opinions about the Bosnian War.
The criticism of Kusturica was started by an organization called the Turkish-Bosnian Cultural Federation as soon as Kusturica was announced as a jury member. Turkish media reported that Kusturica repeatedly downplayed the number of killed people and the rape of Muslim women during the war. It was not clear when Kusturica was supposed to have made those comments, but the daily Milliyet said Kusturica denied the allegations.
Public sentiment in Turkey and in Serbia was such that a couple of days after Kusturica left Turkey, there were news reports by Serbian tabloids claiming that a mob of Turkish youths in Antalya physically assaulting Swiss actor Michael Neuenschwander (in town to promote his movie 180° – Wenn deine Welt plötzlich Kopf steht) because they mistook him for Kusturica due to apparent physical resemblance between the two. Later, Neuenschwander's press agent said there was no physical assault and that Neuenschwander was verbally abused by a small group.
Kusturica later commented on the incident:As director
Guernica, 1978, short
The Brides Are Coming (Nevjeste dolaze), 1978, TV film
Buffet Titanic (Bife Titanik), 1979, TV film
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Sjećaš li se Dolly Bell), 1981.
Nije čovjek ko ne umre, 1984, TV film
When Father Was Away on Business (Otac na službenom putu), 1985.
Time of the Gypsies (Dom za vešanje), 1988.
Arizona Dream, 1993.
Underground (Podzemlje), 1995.
Bila jednom jedna zemlja, 1996, TV series
Magic Bus, 1997, short
Black Cat, White Cat (Crna mačka, beli mačor), 1998.
Super 8 Stories, 2001, documentary
Life Is a Miracle (Život je čudo), 2004.
Promise Me This (Zavet), 2007.
Maradona, 2008, documentary.
Words with Gods, 2014.
On the Milky Road, 2016.
Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1972.
Arizona Dream, 1993.
Underground (Podzemlje), 1995.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000.
The Good Thief, 2002.
Strawberries in the Supermarket, 2004.
Secret Journey, 2006.
L'affaire Farewell (Farewell), 2009.
Hermano (film), 2010.
Nicostratos le pélican (film), 2011.
Au bonheur des ogres (The Scapegoat), 2012.
7 Days in Havana, 2012.
The Ice Forest, 2014.
Words with Gods, 2014.
On the Milky Road, 2016.
1st prize on Student's Film Festival in Karlovy Vary, (1978) for Guernica
Golden Lion for "Best First Work" in Venice Film Festival, (1981) for Do You Remember Dolly Bell?
Golden Palm Cannes Film Festival, (1985) for When Father Was Away on Business
FIPRESCI prize Cannes Film Festival, (1985) for When Father Was Away on Business
Best Foreign Language Academy Award Nomination, (1985) for When Father Was Away on Business
Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival, (1989) for Time of Gypsies
Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, (1993) for Arizona Dream
Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival, (1995) for Underground
Silver Plate of best documentary at Chicago International Film Festival, (2001) for Super 8 Stories
Cinema Prize of the French Education System at Cannes Festival (2004) for Life is a Miracle
Best European Union Film at César Awards, (2005) for Life is a Miracle
Philippe Rotthier European Architecture Award, (2005) for Küstendorf village in Serbia
On 10 February 2007, Kusturica received Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France's highest order in recognition of significant contribution to the arts.
Philippe Rotthier European Architecture Award for his ethnic village project Küstendorf (also called Drvengrad – "wooden town") on Mt. Zlatibor, Serbia, in 2005. The prize is awarded every three years by the Brussels Foundation for Architecture.
In 2004, The Prix de l'Education nationale (National Education Prize) honored Emir Kusturica and his film Život je čudo (Life is a Miracle).
2004 – Lifetime Achievement Award at the 26th Moscow International Film Festival
On 8 April 2011, Kusturica was the first person ever to receive "Momo Kapor award", for his book Death is an Unverified Rumour
In 2011, Kusturica won "Tipar award" for satire, awarded in the city of Pljevlja
Order of St. Sava, Serbian Orthodox Church's highest decoration, on 12 May 2012.
Honorary Magritte Award at the 4th Magritte Awards, on 1 February 2014.
Order of St. King Milutin, awarded in Andrićgrad by Serbian Orthodox Church, on 28 June 2014.
Order of Friendship, 2016.