Nina Kusturica – Filming Migration Stories

Film and theater are often the best ways to come to terms with wrenching human experience. This has certainly been true for filmmaker and director Nina Kusturica, who ever since coming to Austria 30 years ago, has taken on the theme of migration, with all its intricacies, and the companion issues of social inequality. 

At that time, amid the wars dismantling the former Yugoslavia, she and her family were forced to flee Sarajevo and eventually found refuge in Vienna. 

Mastering German in a relatively short time, she started studying directing and editing at Vienna’s renowned University for Music and Performing Arts (MDW), where she produced and directed a debut feature film Auswege / Sign of Escape (2003) taking on the topic of
domestic violence. The film offers a view into the family lives of three women of different generations, social class, and ethnic origin, connected by their experience of domestic violence. 

Kusturica’s subsequent feminist engagement appears to be a logical continuation of her research interests initiated by the film. She joined FC Gloria – Frauen Vernetzung Film, where she was active for a decade. Founded in 2010, the organization connects women within Austrian film industry, advocating for gender equality in representation in the film business and distribution of funds. 

As Kusturica readily explained in our conversation, she and her colleagues first looked into numbers, statistics, and budgets. “We live in a system in which funds are, at best, distributed 30-70% between women and men,” she said, adding that an equal representation may be maintained at university, but most women disappear after their first films – a phenomenon called leaky pipeline syndrome. One of the reasons is an old-fashioned film production structure.

Showcasing Immigrant Experiences

“Film as a medium is publicly financed in Austria,” she explained. “This is money in which women, immigrants, all of us participate. We all finance this industry, which is then essentially governed by white, middle-aged Austrian men. “And this certainly has an impact on the type of stories which are being told.”

Remarkably, Kusturica is succeeding at altering the trend. With two notable films, Little Alien (2009) and Ciao Chérie (2017), to her credit, she has no plans to retire any time soon. Since then, she has been back in the theatre with a stage play Erschlagt die Armen (2018), based on the novel by Shumona Sinha, which she directed for the Werk X Theatre. 

Much of her work is informed by her own immigrant experience. Little Alien follows a group of unaccompanied minors, who have fled from crisis regions to Europe. As refugees, they try to establish normal lives despite European bureaucracies with complicated and long asylum processes. Her second film, Ciao Chérie, centers on people of various ethnic backgrounds who come to a Viennese call shop to connect with their loved ones back home. 

Both films zero in on core themes in the lives of refugees and other immigrants. Little Alien explores what it means to arrive to a new country and whether it is possible to start a new life. Ciao Chérie engages with the question what happens when the status of newcomers is solved, when all documents are in place, and new life finally does begin. 

Then what? What happens when the time has come to say goodbye forever to one’s former life? Watching the two films, you feel an instant connection with the themes and characters, enacted with humor inseparable from the grim realities and sad situations in which protagonists find themselves. 

Back to Sarajevo

Nina admits that her next project may bring her back to Sarajevo as she seeks to explore what it means to return to one’s home country and what the themes and circumstances are that someone would face there. 

So this theme of migration has long absorbed Kusturica, as has the theme of social inequality. At first sight, she admits, Vienna appears to be an organized, healthy society. Yet not everybody enjoys the same opportunities and privileges. This has inspired her to direct her camera towards the subject of inequality, towards the invisible borders between the haves and the have-nots. 

This remains a guiding principle in her other engagements as well. An art-based research project “Confronting Realities” carried out by the Vienna Film Academy Institute for Film and Television, at MDW, and financed by the Austrian Research Fund (FWF), is one of them.  In both the practice, and theory, of art, this project asks, how “cinematic auto-socio biographies can be explored…, while focusing especially on the fundamentally collaborative character of filmmaking.” 

In addition to Vienna Film Academy, Kusturica is affiliated with the University of Vienna, the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, where she mainly teaches acting for film. Whether in her work as a theater or a film director, or through her engagement as a lecturer or an artist-researcher, she sees herself as someone committed at making an impact on social reality. One can only hope to see and experience as many of Nina’s projects as possible in the near future.