People from the Fringes of Society are the Spiritus Movens of Life in the Balkans
(An Interview with Želimir Žilnik)
1. When people speak of your work they often associate you with the New York School, Godard, Warhol, cinema verité, but I think that Branislav Miltojević is right when he says that you only use their methods in an ironic manner, just as you convey irony in your own approach to film. Is this use of irony at the foundation of your work?
Želimir Žilnik: The authors you just mentioned exemplified the period of the 1960s. The fact that I shared an affinity with their loose structures reflected a choice in stepping outside narratives of individual destinies and "cases" – because we were all living in a society which condoned the "I"-to-"we" transformation. But it goes without saying that a "collective" as a subject with feelings and dreams compels you to wonder, to doubt, to satirise, to be distrustful.
2. You studied law, and you began working in cinema as an amateur. How important is it that you worked your way through alone? What has meant to your work?
Želimir Žilnik: After grammar school I joined a network of film clubs, which was an important scene at the time for up-and-coming new Yugoslav cinema. The Belgrade Kino Club was the first venue for filmmakers Živojin Pavlović, Dušan Makavejev, Kokan Rakonjac, and for Lordan Zafranović and Ivan Martinac it was the Split Kino Club, and Karpo Godina and Nasko Kriznar started one in Ljubljana, etc. Professional cinema was just beginning to embrace auteur cinema a year after it was established in the second half of the 1960s, and the work of many auteurs were shown at Kino Clubs. I had chosen to study law because they didn't have a sociology department at the time in Novi Sad, but this decision proved to be more useful than I could have foreseen. When I left the Party in 1968, having been stigmatised after the indictment against my film Early Works, and later in further legal actions against other films (a ban was imposed on Neoplanta Film, following the trial against Bulajić’s project The Grand Transport – in which I was accused of showing "hostility toward partisan films", etc.), I was already well-versed in court procedures and law and could defend myself.
3. What ideas and methods adopted by the Black Wave were important to you?
Želimir Žilnik: In the eight years between 1964 and 1972 more than ten "new, liberated" films were made in Yugoslavia, all of them free from didactics, social realism, and Party propaganda. These films were made in the era of "mature Titoism", a time when the Yugoslav model was more open, more successful and more communicative than other state models of socialism. Even back then, the "new film" was often a marginal production compared to the partisan spectacles and mega-co-productions with the West filmed in studios of Jadran Film in Zagreb and Avala Film in Belgrade. Also, Aleksandar Petrović, Pavlović, Makavejev, Hladnik, Krsto Papić, Puriša Đorđević and others were quite successful among the critics, both domestic and foreign, and with audiences, as well. So when we think about the film scene of the sixties today, we immediately think of the Black Wave. And where did my Black Film come from? It was spurred by the ideological disapproval of anarchic liberalism that these films were subjected to after ’68, in the offensive of the agenda of re-Stalinisation embarked upon by the regime which was then shaken to its foundations by the "earthquakes" set off by student unrest against the "red bourgeoisie" in June 1968 and by the occupation of Czechoslovakia, and especially by the elimination of Dubček’s model in August ’68.
4. Black Film seems like a tongue-in-cheek recapitulation of the politically committed documentaries of that time. How do you see this film today?
Želimir Žilnik: I made Black Film in the beginning of 1971 when the ideological campaign against the New Wave had reached its peak. With this documentary, which is maybe more of an essay, I wanted to convey my attitude toward the hysterical mystification of film and social criticism. In our present circumstances it is almost impossible to understand the scope and gravity of that ideological campaign. The entire party, state and police, around ten thousand people, were engaged in excluding, persecuting, "criticising" and disabling those people who were stigmatised as "ideological enemies". Under state socialism, such a form of exorcism was a very important tool of "discipline". It is interesting to note that in Yugoslavia, which had in any case a more open system, an undefined policy of self-management and free travelling abroad, the Party did not exclude the campaigns and "cleansing" agendas typical of Stalinist models. The destruction of the New Wave and the change of its name to Black Wave is an obvious example of an wide-ranging, effective and self-destructive course of action. The most creative phase of our domestic cinema was brought to a standstill. Directors like Makavejev, Petrović, Pavlović and many others were not given new projects. Because of his film Plastic Jesus, Lazar Stojanović was sentenced to two years in prison. They banned all my films that had been made until then: five documentaries and Early Works. And my film Freedom or Cartoons, which was in the editing process, was also banned. I remember the social security office sending me a notice that since my films were not shown publicly I was to be stripped off the status of a film-maker - which was the basis for my insurance. So, you see, they were successful administrative measures. When the most interesting, internationally acclaimed auteurs went abroad, their cinema language deteriorated and they practically never again made films of the quality they used to. I was still young then, not yet thirty, and I decided: I'm not going to let those parasites break me.
5. Regarding your "German period" - what experiences in this new environment changed your relationship to your original environment, above all with regard to the ideology at the foundation of your work? And how has the perception of these films in Germany changed over time?
Želimir Žilnik: I went to Germany on my own will. First of all, there were already several hundred Yugoslav foreign workers there, and new ones were coming. And as I felt like one of them, I made a couple of documentaries about them: Antrag, Hausordnung, Abschied, Inventur. Secondly, which is probably more interesting, I was intrigued by the mysterious German phenomenon of self-destruction. This powerful culture, art, economy had managed to destroy itself twice within a space of thirty years. It was being reduced to rubble while the ruling class remained full of self-importance. Is that not similar to the narcissist self-confidence of the high-ranking officers of state socialism while they were digging their own graves? In addition to this, Germany has always had a fascinating intellectual environment: Marxism and fascism found fertile soil in this country, and the "Americanisation of Europe" began in Germany, as well. In the early 1970s, when I went to live there, a group of film authors gathered together: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Kluge, Reitz, Syberberg... I was shooting and editing under the auspices of the Filmverlag der Autoren, which they had established after the concept of Yugoslav "film worker’s association precepts of self-management". There were several quite provocative films that I shot in Munich, among them Öffentliche Hinrichtung and Paradies in 1975 and 1976 respectively. They were banned by their particular form of censorship known as "Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle". Because of this I left Germany in the second half of 1976. Today those films are shown in Germany as the first reactions to the "iron curtain" issue that was hitting them at the time, and in connection to their "Rote-Armee-Fraktion".
6. You once said that the relationship between an individual’s destiny and the
society he lives in is most important to you. The protagonists of your films are often people on the fringes of society. Does this juxtaposition of those in established society and those on the fringes of society reflect that basic relationship? What means do you employ to keep the balance between these two poles?
Želimir Žilnik: I construct the drama and narrative in a way to make them accessible to audiences. When I returned from Germany, there was no possibility for me to find support for my projects from the film funds or companies. But I found space in television. At the time there were only two channels, watched by twenty million Yugoslavs. When you make a TV film that will be shown at eight o’clock in the evening and seen by eight million people, you think: I'm going to set up my own story with the heroes of my choosing, but I'll have to tell it so that everyone can understand it - peasants, workers, old people. I consider the thirteen feature television films that I made in the 1980s to be the most consistent part of my cinematic works.
7. In Early Works you articulate your ideas through a group of peasants, and one can see the absurdity of revolution. In Oldtimer the main protagonist directly involves himself in anti-bureaucratic demonstrations, and one can see the absurdity of nationalism. In The Way Steel was Tempered one can see the end of socialism through the meaningless symbols of social realism which today reveal the surreal position everyday reality had under it. In these films you highlight the gap between ideology and society, and at the same time you bring ideology into everyday reality, into situations where this relationship becomes clear...
Želimir Žilnik:I learned some of my most important lessons from Medvedkin, De Sica and Glauber Rocha, who placed their protagonists in the middle of "tempestuous historical happenings".
8. You speak about current times, the current state of society and human existence within society. You take a position against ideology. Is ideology a necessary evil or, when do you think it becomes evil?
Želimir Žilnik: The prevailing ideology of the time we lived in, was an illusion. That ideology was hiding or justifying social injustices. It was the means used by the ruling class to manipulate and to keep its minions in ignorance.
9. How would you characterise the nationalist ideology of the 1990s compared to the previous Communist ideology?
Želimir Žilnik: The Yugoslav case has its exceptions. In the early 1970s, as I mentioned, under Tito’s regime re-Stalinisation was instigated after the protests against the "red bourgeoisie" and Dubček’s elimination from the scene. The process of re-Stalinisation was difficult to implement in a developed system of self-management and in a land with open borders. So it primarily focused on the ramifications of the party's ideology, on the other hand it led to confining the republic elites to "their states". Thus, in the second half of 1980s the system in Yugoslavia became a form of "regional socialism". "Confined republic authorities" presented themselves as the defenders of their citizens' interests against the "abuse" of other republics! The basis for the subsequent "open socialism" lies in the feudalisation process of Yugoslavia. And when the entire corpus of the Communist power was shaken in 1990s – nationalism was instated as a replacement for ideology. Propagators of primitive nationalism were, for the most part, the officials of the previous system, from the top of the party or the police. Frustrated intellectuals, most of them former young "avant-garde communists" added oil to the fire. And the power mechanism of that nationalism was in many ways identical to Stalinism: only the issue was not whether you were a good party member, but a good Serb or Croat.
10. The heroes of your films are often victims of ideology, but, if I may simplify things, people who participate in it are not so innocent... I think that living with ideology is clearly evidenced in the film Tito among the Serbs for the Second Time. How do you see the role of ordinary people in Yugoslav society during the last years?
Želimir Žilnik: Ordinary people in the Balkans have lived as second-class citizens since the early 20th century because this region has been occupied by Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. And suddenly all these liberation processes took place. And over one or two generations immense changes took place. Cities developed, along with industry and educational institutions. Between the wars there was a period of "rampant capitalism"; during the Second World War various brutal features of fascism were present with the German order to kill a hundred Serbs for one German soldier; and after the war Communism came with its own repertoire of cruelties, from repossessing peasants’ land, concentration camps for Tito’s opponents, etc. The improvement of the standard of living or creating jobs for many people in the Balkans did not bring people personal success at work, discipline or talent. But among power-driven people, behind each dictator who comes to power there are people who simply do not care. And this is, for the most part, a passive support, because the number of the privileged is still small. In the film Tito among the Serbs for the Second Time, I wanted to show how much official propaganda and ideology and the media have managed to drive people crazy. And it can be clearly seen in this film. I see the greatest fault of the ruling class in its readiness to pressurise its own people to the point of total wretchedness.
11. Your recent work, your socially committed documentaries and docudramas, reacted directly to the political situation of the nineties in Yugoslavia. Which period gave you the most opportunities for making films?
Želimir Žilnik: I have always found two forms particularly challenging which can explain why I have often tried to unite them in a single form. Working with a film or teleplay script written in advance, helps one find a certain precision for formulating the action, emotions and relations with the actors; filming a documentary offers one the opportunity to articulate "facets of life" in a new whole. Combining these two forms makes shooting films ten times more effective, more economical and more direct than when you opt for the "clean" job. I think I managed to pull it off in Marble Ass, Fortress Europe, Kenedi Goes Back Home, etc.
12. Your work joins documentary and fictional elements. How do you determine when to use documentary and when to use feature methods?
Želimir Žilnik: Shooting a documentary has its limitations: you cannot expose someone’s intimacy, even when the participant agrees to it, because one must feel some responsibility that he or his family do not suffer because of this. But one shouldn't have any problem shooting what is a public or a social experience. A fictional structure with talented actors gives you an opportunity to reinterpret emotions.
13. The spectator of your films can find himself in an unusual situation when he wants to look for emotional identification with a character or with what is going onscreen; he is often obliged to take a critical stance. Yet, I believe that at the same time a spectator can feel strong reactions with regard to the directness of the protagonists and their existential drama. On what level do you seek identification with your audience?
Želimir Žilnik: I am intrigued by the demystification process during the course of shooting and editing a film, which is always something artificially constructed, but film also has a great power to convey on subtle emotions, moods and relationships, just as in conversation or communication amongst people which have a much greater individuality than the things that are said on a theatre stage or in a novel.
14. Your films often feature "alienating effects" – caricature, boredom, serious talks, unexpected endings and narrative digression. Does this reflect your uncertainty about the possibilities a film can offer? That it can pose questions, express attitudes but not an agreement?
Želimir Žilnik: A film, if it is done well, can seem like a "slice of life". It is a parallel subject of reality that is being shot. And life, as we know from our daily experience, can suddenly change its flow, can be interrupted, can be terminated.
15. Ordinary people play a major role in your films. They often come from the fringes of society, and they play themselves. It is interesting how much room you give the people and how they participate in creating the ultimate shape of a film. How you draw them into your films?
Želimir Žilnik: The method I use can be seen as taking a "shortcut" from the usual process of constructing a course of action. Another screenplay writer might boast about how he came up with an "interesting case", destiny or event. This would inspire him, he'd write a story that would be "close to reality". Then he would start with working on the production and finances, and in the end he would start shooting. This cycle usually lasts from one to three years. My method is: people or events that interest me are a "ready-made" aspect of the imminent film; so, it usually takes less than six months from the moment I decide on the story of the film until its final realisation.
16. One of the strongest moments for me are those "collective scenes" in which people express and exchange their attitudes and points of view, often based on their own identification with others. How do these scenes come about?
Želimir Žilnik: It is similar to fiction films in which you devise a conflict among persons or bring in people with different experiences and social backgrounds.
17. Foreign workers and immigrants are also featured often in your work, not only to convey certain cultural and social phenomena, but they also reflect the existential problems of those who do not want to be in their homelands. What are your other reasons for often featuring the stories of these people?
Želimir Žilnik: Their stories reflect experiences in my life that preoccupy me. At an early age I was rejected and kicked out. I was 24. I started out believing that I was living in an interesting, successful, independent socialist country. Clinging to this belief, I made my first films which were critical and provocative. It never occurred to me then that the entire structure was rotten. And then I sobered up. When I was replaced by many of my colleagues and viewed as an antagonist. And then, my personal experiences with foreign workers and as a man on the fringes of society, as a direct opponent during the Milošević era – I learned that the essence of life and the reflexes and culture of survival in the Balkans do not lie in the establishment but on the fringes of society. The establishment remains comprised of crooks, ideologists and criminals.
This interview took place on the internet between the 3rd and 16th of September 2005. It was conducted by Dominika Prejdová.The interview was first published as: Prejdová, D.: Lidé z okraje společnosti jsou hnací silou života na Balkáně. Rozhovor se Želimirem Žilnikem. In: DO III revue pro dokumentární film, č.3/2005, ed.: Slováková, A., p. 249 - 254.)
Dominika Prejdová (1979) is currently making postgraduate studies at the Institute of General History, Faculty of Philosophy and Arts, Charles University, Prague. She has MA in Film Studies, Faculty of Philosophy and Arts, Charles University, Prague with thesis focused on the film representations of national conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Since 2000 she has co-operated with several Czech journals, where her essays and reviews dealing mostly with cinema issues have been published. In 2003-2007 she was working for Prague International Film Festival Febiofest as a programme co-ordinator. Since july 2008 she has been working for Czech film distribution company Artcam centered on arthouse movies.