Slav labour

Film byJonathan Romney

Emir Kusturica is currently the bogeyman of European cinema - only in part because of his larger-than-life reputation for brawling, name-calling and profligate movie-making. His last film, Underground, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, was undoubtedly an "event movie", even though its box-office performance was unimpressive. But its broadly allegorical, cartoon-folktale depiction of postwar Yugoslavia led to the Bosnian director - born in Sarajevo of mixed Serb and Muslim origins - being attacked as an apologist for Serbian militarism. The debate around the film was particularly heated in France, with the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy launching a heated polemic against Kusturica, resulting in the director's declaration that he would never make another film.

Underground was set and shot in Belgrade, but aside from that it was hard to see quite how the accusations would stick. The only clear point, in a confused magic-realist history of the Belgrade community, was that the film was at once nostalgic for the old unified Yugoslavia and a satire on the mystifications by which the Tito regime claimed to unite it. The story of a community tricked into hiding for years literally underground, Kusturica explained, depicted the "metaphorical cellar" that Tito had created. Meanwhile, Kusturica himself, now based in France, continues to refer to himself as Yugoslavian and to speak of the old days in unambiguously nostalgic terms.

Having quickly broken his vow to retire, Kusturica has now made what seems a deliberate attempt to evade further controversy. Black Cat White Cat - again filmed around Belgrade - is a knockabout farce that presents itself as pure entertainment in an entirely facetious vein. Made under the twin influences of Fellini and GarcIa Marquez, it's set in a rural gypsy milieu, among rival clans of Romany gangsters. The gangling, rubbery Bajram Severzdan plays Matko, an amiable chancer who lives in a crumbling encampment by the Danube and who strikes a deal with the gypsy mob godfather Grga Pitic (Sabri Sulejmani, the skeletal owner of the most terrifying dental work ever seen on screen). Grga sponsors Matko's attempted petrol heist, but the whole business ends with Matko's son obliged to marry "Ladybird", a gangster's daughter. In the explosive climax, the calamities pile up, as do the extraordinarily naff wedding gifts.

The plot makes some degree of sense, but you don't follow it too closely, dazzled as you are by the sheer grotesqueness of the cast, an endless parade of bizarre phantasms. There's a Scarface-style mobster with a coke-stuffed crucifix; a techno theme song ("Pitbull! Terrier!") and two molls to provide backing vocals; a green-haired henchman; an ailing grandfather supplying the film's keynote when he yells out for "Music! Aggression!". There are also limitless supplies of farm life: a vast pig idly feasting on a rusty car; the cats of the title who skitter throughout as an anarchic leitmotiv; and armies of geese, ceaselessly bustling across the screen, just to keep things moving.

Kusturica might not seem the most discerning of comic directors - whenever things flag, just throw a goat at someone, especially if they're riding a motorbike. What's extraordinary is the concertedness of the juggling act - the sense of the world as perpetual circus. Everything comes down to acrobatics: stunts with sidecars, a brass band strung up on a tree trunk, a grisly routine with a railway level crossing. This sort of humour, owing as much to Tex Avery as to Fellini, makes more sense in a strictly farcical milieu than in the overtly allegorical Underground. Here, it becomes peculiarly a self- referential form of comedy that does not actually require you to find it funny - the point is not so much to laugh as to marvel at it.

The film is an expression of faith in universal confusion; Kusturica proposes a cosmology of chaos, in which all things are bound to collide, endlessly and permanently. Whether this worldview is open to political interpretation is another question. In the film's gypsy universe, set outside and in opposition to the overground world, everything is up for grabs, everything is run by crazed brigands: you'd be within your rights to read it as another cartoon of Yugoslavia, if not specifically of Serbia. Even the way Kusturica orchestrates his comedy routines is open to such interpretation. It's never simply a question of several things happening at once - iceblocks tumbling downstairs, while a bystander juggles with grenades - but of things happening in different directions. All objects, people and animals have their own agendas here, and are all shoehorned into the same space only by the most tenuous and precarious accord.

This may be the worst possible time to release a Kusturica film in Britain - even Underground, with its obvious headline appeal, found scant audience, and a screwball, Serbian-shot farce may strike many people as not altogether appropriate viewing during the Kosovo crisis. But Black Cat White Cat deserves an audience, arguably more than the confused Underground: though he's rather less ambitious here, Kusturica is actually on top of his game. Think of the film as The Beverly Hillbillies fuelled by slivovitz, and its appeal quickly becomes apparent.

"Black Cat White Cat" (15) opens on 7 May at selected London cinemas

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis