“Here, where the Drina flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains, stands a great clean-cut stone bridge with eleven wide sweeping arches,” wrote Ivo Andrić.

A few metres upstream from Sokollu Mehmed Pasha’s famous 16th century bridge in Višegrad, a new town, which is also made of stone, has sprung up. The pet project of the famous film director and glorious winner of two Palmes d’Or, Emir Kusturica, who benefited from the encouragement of local politicians in the region where he is conducting his own personal war against globalisation, Andrićgrad [Andrić-town] has been built on the banks of the Drina, as a homage to writer Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslav laureate of the 1961 Nobel Prize for literature.

A Bosnian Croat by birth, the author of The Bridge on the Drina lived for many years in Belgrade and wrote his major works using the Serbian Cyrillic script. Unfortunately, the new town is threatening to revive decades-old controversies about the cultural ownership of Andrić and stir up the demons of the region’s sombre past.

Work on the project began precisely a year ago, on June 28, the feast of Vidovdan which commemorates the Serbian Prince Lazar’s 1389 battle against the Turks in Kosovo Polje (which literally translates as Blackbird Field).

Andrić must have turned over in his grave when the famous director decided that he would be the namesake of the town to be built on the outskirts of Višegrad. With 50 buildings that will put Republika Srpska on the Nobel laureates world map, Andrićgrad is the pride and joy of President Milorad Dodik and its generous patrons.

Kusturica has announced that Andrićgrad “will be a beacon for the spirit of Republika Srpska.” Well that is a surprise! Andrić predicted the formation of Republika Srpska. Perhaps Andrić is the man behind Republika Srpska. We have been told that Andrićgrad will be a conceptual meeting point for Byzantium, the Renaissance and Ottoman civilisation.

However, this is a view that is not shared by art historian and member of the state commission for the protection of the cultural and historic heritage of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ljiljana Ševo, who has described the project as the fruit of an unfortunate encounter between uninspired imagination and an inadequate knowledge of the past. With antecedents like these, the result will inevitably amount to a manipulation of cultural and historical values.

Herzegovinians had the gall to obstruct his plans

For Bosniaks, Andrićgrad is “the final stage of the genocide perpetrated in Višegrad [in 1992],” in which the Serbs have embarked on something resembling a quest for literary and urbanistic hegemony.

But when Kusturica has a project, it just has to go ahead. Who can say no to the renowned Serbian patriot and defender of Kosovo? When it was in office, Vojislav Koštunica’s government gave him the gift of a beautiful site and financed the development of Drvengrad [literally “Wooden Town”, a village built by the director for his film Life is a Miracle], which Kusturica subsequently planned to bequeath to his grandson Janko “so that he could be raised in an environment that is far removed from rules of the gaudy world of capitalism.”

But Kusturica has also run into some people who are even more headstrong than he is. The Serbs of Herzegovina refused to give him the “authentic stone” that he was planning to use in the buildings in Andrićgrad. The director had planned on dismantling several buildings in the region of Trebinje to obtain their cut stone. Once he had knocked down a number of abandoned houses and stables, Kusturica had the bright idea of breaking up the Austro-Hungarian fort in Petrinja.

The Herzegovinians had the gall to obstruct his plans. The ingrates had forgotten that Kusturica had promised to build them a Balkan film centre, which was supposed to be a kind of Hollywood in Trebinje. Annoyed by the unexpected disobedience of his compatriots, Kusturica abandoned his plan in a welter of controversy. As a parting shot, he remarked that the Herzegovinians could continue “to enjoy their symbol of the Austro-Hungarian war and the murder of two million Serbs.”

“Most illustrious urban planner”

Having been disappointed in his battle to obtain what was just an average fort that does not even figure on the list of historical monuments, Kusturica accused the Herzegovinians of “wanting to hang on to a symbol of the occupation” — a surprising remark when you consider that occupation has always been a part of life in this part of the world.

If we were to follow the great director’s logic to the letter, we would be eager to demolish the Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade, the Ćele kula in Niš [the Tower of Cranes built by the Ottomans in the aftermath of a Serbian uprising of 1804], Baščaršija [Sarajevo’s Ottoman bazaar] or the Austro-Hungarian brasserie in Sarajevo. Why we could even dismantle the Zagreb Cathedral!

All of this reminds of the former Yugoslavia’s “most illustrious urban planner” of the war years, the mayor of Trebinje, Božidar Vučurević, who, during the bombardment of Dubrovnik [in 1991] pledged to build “a Dubrovnik that would be even more beautiful and even older.” It appears that Kusturica is planning to construct “an Andrićgrad that will be even more beautiful and even older,” using stone from a fort that is 130 years old.

Bravo! Allow me to suggest that Kusturica, who is eager to ensure the multicultural quality of his new monument, should appropriate a few stones for Andrićgrad from Kalemegdan. After all, Andrić was fond of Belgrade, and Kalemegdan inspires memories of the both the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians.