To begin with the obvious, it requires a level of disingenuousness to argue that Black Cat, White Cat makes the slightest attempt at verisimilitude, that is, to portray ‘real existing’ Roma life. Secondly, there is an underlying chauvinism in Iordanova’s tone that suggests Kusturica, a non-Roma, has no right to represent Roma and that a Roma director would do things better, or at least more ‘authentically’. This kind of biographical logic is foremostly a violation of artistic freedom, and then, in effect, a diktat that filmmakers only represent their own (national, ethnic, sexual, gender) communities. Thirdly, for all their madcap foibles, Kusturica’s Gypsies come off very positively in a number of respects. Whether it is Matko’s paternal love for his son Zare, Dadan’s somewhat obsessive love for his sisters, or the warm fraternity of the two paterfamilias, the protagonists frequently display admirable solidarity and bonhomie towards one and other. Judging the film on a single axis of ethics and representation is also to ignore its significant formal properties, including the references to Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942),2 Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Kusturica’s own body of work, not to mention its many self-referential elements, i.e. the drawing attention to its own cinematic artifice. Finally, if Kusturica really is doing his Gypsies such a disservice, where does that leave Sasha Baron Cohen’s infinitely more popular Borat (2006)? As Eliot Borenstein reminds us, the opening scenes of Borat’s home village in ‘Kazakhstan’ were actually shot in a Romany village in Romania, and as Borenstein notes, the villagers were oblivious to Baron Cohen’s documentary ruse, their poor command of English meaning they had no idea he was presenting them as ‘prostitutes, rapists, and pedophiles’ (2008: 5).3
While the popular contention that Black Cat, White Cat is essentially an apolitical film is hard to dispute outright, such a reading nevertheless elides the fact that in politically turbulent times, ignoring politics is in itself a defiantly political act. If Black Cat, White Cat does offer political inflections, then it is the recurring image of an enormous pig munching on the plastic carcass of a Trabant – perhaps the emblematic symbol of Eastern Europe’s failed industrial modernity – that provides best for rumination, a tragi-comic goodbye to the vanished world of European communism. Elsewhere, the smugglers who peddle dodgy oil and whiteware of dubious provenance along the Danube also have strong referents in reality. Serbia spent the 1990s under crippling economic sanctions, as western leaders tried to bring the Miloševic´ regime, if not to its knees, then at least to heel. And in an in-joke that local (former Yugoslav) audiences would certainly not have missed, Matko first refers to Dadan being a ‘war criminal’, and then later, a ‘businessman patriot’. Oil smuggling was the ‘patriotic’ business venture of choice for many an exYugoslav war criminal, making Grga Pitic´’s counterfeit whiskey operation seem positively quaint in comparison.
Unlike Underground, which closed with the words ‘This story has no end’, its motley cast floating off to sea on a small island symbolically carved like an iceberg from a larger land mass, the fairytale of Black Cat, White Cat closes with an emphatic ‘Happy Ending’. With Zarije’s advice that ‘the sun never shines here’ still ringing in his ears, Zare sneakily escorts his bride aboard a German cruise ship and together they glide off down the Danube into the distance. While it is impossible to speculate on whether this kind of escapist fantasy was Kusturica’s note to self, he returned from France to live more or less permanently in Serbia in the early noughties. Having apparently regained his appetite for on- and off-screen scrapping, he continues to cinematically pick over the elegiac bones of the Balkans – picking many a new fight in the process.
1. Following the sensitive and sensible lead of Nikolina Dobreva, I use the term ‘Gypsies’ when referring to their representation (both in the film and popular culture more generally), and the more correct ‘Roma’ to refer to the ethnic group itself.
2. For more on this see Francesco Caviglia’s ‘What is Rick Doing in the Balkans? Quotes from Casablanca in Kusturica’s Black Cat, White Cat (1998)’, p.o.v. 14 (December 2002), pp. 41– 52.
3. Borenstein also suggests a number of pertinent links between Borat and Kusturica’s ‘Gypsy’ film.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Austria, Greece, USA. Production Company: Ciby 2000, Pandora Film, Komuna, and France 2 Cinéma. Director: Emir Kusturica. Producer: Karl Baumgartner. Screenwriters: Emir Kusturica and Gordan Mihic´. Cinematographer: Crna macˇka, beli macˇor/Black Cat, White Cat (1998) 173 Thierry Arbogast. Music: Dr Nele Karajilic´, Vojislav Aralica and Dejan Sparavalo. Editor: Svetolik Zajc. Cast: Bajram Severdžan (Matko Destanov), Florijan Ajdini (Zare Destanov), Zabit Memedov (Zarije Destanov), Sabri Sulejman (Grga Pitic´), Jasar Destani (Grga Veliki), Srd–an Todorovic´ (Dadan Karambolo), Branka Katic´ (Ida), Salija Ibraimova (Afrodita).]
Eliot Borenstein, ‘Our Borats, Our Selves: Yokels and Cosmopolitans on the Global Stage’, Slavic Review 67.1, Spring 2008, pp. 1–7.
Nikolina Dobreva, ‘Constructing the “Celluloid Gypsy”’, Romani Studies 5, 17.2, pp. 141–154.
Goran Gocic´, Notes from the Underground: The Cinema of Emir Kusturica, London, Wallflower Press, 2001.
J. Hoberman, ‘Chaos Theories’, Village Voice, September 7, 1999. Available at: www.villagevoice.com/1999- 09-07/film/chaos-theories/1/ (accessed 15 October 2012).
Sean Homer, ‘Retrieving Emir Kusturica’s Underground as a Critique of Ethnic Nationalism’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51, Spring 2009. Available at: www.ejumpcut.org/ archive/jc51.2009/Kusterica/index.html (accessed 18 October 2012).
Dina Iordanova, (ed.), Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 44.2 (Special issue: Cinematic Images of Romanies), Fall 2003.
Pavle Levi, Disintegration in Frames: Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2007.
John Wrathall, ‘Black Cat, White Cat – Review’, Sight and Sound, May 1999. Available at: http://old. bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/review/97 (accessed April 15, 2013).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.