For an Idea - Against the Status Quo

Branka Ćurčić

"... The phenomenon of Žilnik, his cinema, his cultural importance and his moral and political activism has not just come about of its own accord in just any society but is in itself an expression of a new social trend that has been articulated on the ruins of an idea of a society realised in an era of industrial modernism, on the other side of the border dividing socialism and democratic capitalism. And thus, Žilnik is approached not from the perspective of post-socialism but from the perspective of a post "social status" as such..."

"... Žilnik has displayed an outstanding artistic, moral and political continuity within his own historical context. This represents a constancy which cannot be reduced to some hackneyed catchphrase like "the style reflects the man himself"; it is a constancy that has managed to effortlessly bridge dissolutions of epochal size: the crisis shaped by Yugoslav socialism and its final collapse, i.e. the epochal collapse of communism 1989/90; Yugoslav war horrors, Serbian transitional chaos, the contradictions of European integration, etc. In short, his achievements mark a continuity quite obviously out of proportion with their time, i.e. with events that have marked time in an epochal manner. And yet, Žilnik cannot be canonised. We cannot place him, for example, in the history of Yugoslav or Serbian cinema, or in the heroic history of dissent under Yugoslav communism, or amongst the great figures of the national democratic revolution, or amongst creators whose homeland is indebted to them, or amongst the prophets of a new Europe... And yet we also cannot place him within the phalanges of the critics and saboteurs. Žilnik has always been either more or less than that, to put it shortly - not reducible to given parameters. That is why he is not a man of continuity but a man-continuity..."

Boris Buden (1)

"For an Idea – Against the Status Quo: An Analysis and Systematisation of Želimir Žilnik’s Artistic Practice" seeks to motivate future research projects on the relationship between Žilnik’s artistic engagement and the political and social environment of his work, dating from its inception in 1967 until now. The material that has been provided here is a starting point for the further analysis, evaluation and systematisation of Žilnik’s cinematic work. The foundation of this material is a series of essays written by contemporary film theoreticians and art critics, as well as some rare excerpts from Žilnik’s personal archives. The "peripheral" activity of compiling and sorting newspaper clippings on his films and activist activities, video and photographic material documenting his working methods and rare archive material made it possible for us to explore the "relationship" of institutions, public opinion of political and cultural establishments and Žilnik’s work (and wider) from the moment of its conception onward. Although incomplete, but still being compiled and published in one place, this material makes it possible to examine the manifold meaning, context and reading of Žilnik’s filmography even today. The project has assembled, ordered and interpreted a vast amount of documentation on the contexts of reception and influence that Želimir Žilnik’s works have had in different times and in environments from Novi Sad and Vojvodina to other places where his work had significant reception. Inviting new interpretations, it seeks to function as an instructive programme for the content of which derive from diverse sources of Yugoslav and European cultural and academic archives. "For an Idea – Against the Status Quo" is a preamble, a proposition for the creation for a future interpretation of Želimir Žilnik’s cinema in a broader variety of contexts.

Contributors in this edition have led to new interpretations of Želimir Žilnik’s work through their multi-faceted theses. The essays provided, not exclusively from the field of film theory, encompass a wide spectrum of interpretation of this prolific cinema, offering modern criticism of ethno-nationalism and neoliberal capitalism, geo-political and sociological analyses of the European Union, marginalised social subjects (the homo sacer), re-examinations of Marxist theories, discussions of the role and effects of ideology, references to postcolonial studies, etc. The multi-faceted nature of such an analytical opus corresponds to the complexity of Žilnik’s cinematic career and to his functions as an activist, humanist and ultra-antinationalistic figure.

In his essay "Cine-Commune, or Filmmaking as Direct Socio-Political Intervention" (2), film theoretician Pavle Levi speaks of Želimir Žilnik as a filmmaker who has reached the zenith of a social and politically engaged cinema in former Yugoslavia and beyond. According to Levi, there is probably no other filmmaker who has examined the dynamics of post-war European politics, economy and culture with more rigour and perseverance than him. In this, just as in the majority of other essays, an important section has been dedicated to Žilnik’s steadfast commitment in politicising the oppressed and the ostracised as part of his Marxist intellectual heritage, to his steadfast commitment in criticising globalisation, ethno-nationalism, neoliberalism and the free market. It is interesting to point out that this essay is, apart from being signed by Pavle Levi, also signed by Želimir Žilnik himself, seeing as he provided many frank and unequivocal statements regarding his own work.

In his essay "Behind Scepticism Lies the Fire of a Revolutionary! (Part One: Želimir Žilnik and 'The Existence of a Possibility')", art critic Branislav Dimitrijević sees Želimir Žilnik as a figure outside of the conventional ideological dichotomy of political opportunism and "dissident" political and artistic activism, especially back in the times of former Yugoslavia. According to this author, Žilnik assumed the much underestimated position of a leftist dissident in a socialist country. His creative work is seen as a combination of ironic criticism and eager atavism – he is the "anti-dissident dissident". If we observe Žilnik’s films from the perspective of an attempt to re-evaluate the complexity of the Marxist discourse, Dimitrijević pays special attention to the issue of the socially marginalized – the contradictory "lumpenproletariat". The author sees one of the "legacies" of Žilnik’s practices as an ability to provoke a "shift in established points of view" – beyond the obvious dichotomy ("official" vs. "dissident"), in order to point out a certain antithesis in the materialistic practices that they can be juxtaposed against.

"Shifting to the present" is explored by theoretician Marina Gržinić in her essay "Ex-Yugoslavian Avant-garde Film Production and Zilnik's Early Works Seen in Relation to Biopolitics and Necropolitics". Gržinić speaks of two "interconnected shifts". One deals with life and politics under the communist regime, not seen as a dark side of neoliberal capitalism, but on the contrary: the neoliberal capitalist system is a dark side of communism. The other change regards the shift from biopolitics to necropolitics which is currently taking place under neoliberal capitalism and in the world in general – necropolitics is seen here as the multi-faceted symptom of a phenomenon where the "surplus of capital value is based on and capitalized on the perspective of death (worlds)", as well as a symptom and re-articulation of the modern "turbo-fascist processes" in the region that emerged following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Press clippings connected to Želimir Žilnik’s works are given a wider context in this publication, which also contains a number of statements and interviews with Žilnik, revealing the sheer number of his public and verbal appearances (see introductory text on the press clippings). The fact that several identical statements made by Žilnik appear both in Pavle Levi’s essays, as well as in film critic Dominika Prejdova’s texts, in no way points to any shortcoming on authors' part but only evinces the authenticity of the texts, as well as the significance of creating a wider framework to explore Žilnik's cinema. In "Socially Engaged Cinema According to Želimir Žilnik", Dominika Prejdová borrows a number of Žilnik’s statements to form the basis for her essay, in which she discusses the consistency, continuity and multi-facetted political aspects of his films. Here the author’s criticism is not seen as inherent but as constructive – as a critical "enrichment" of the given discourse. The almost intimate tone of this essay is also present in the interview Prejdová conducts with Žilnik, entitled "People from the Fringes of Society are the Spiritus Movens of Life in the Balkans". Through a "first-hand" perspective, the interview conveys Žilnik’s intimate disclosures on the influences on his work and a certain portion of self-criticism and offers insights into his docu-drama style and the relationship between "the destiny of the individual" and the society in his films.

Slovenian film critic Jurij Meden's essay, "Želimir Žilnik’s Kenedi Trilogy: Solidarity Outside the Walls of Fortress Europe" examines both the complexity of Žilnik's "economy of expression" in his films depicting the brutal expulsion of Roma from the EU and the paradoxical concept of "European identity" which is significantly determined by its economic parameters. Meden draws attention to the fact that Žilnik's artistic expression develops organically from the specific subject it tackles - the minimal (almost "cheap"), raw form he adopts to embrace "social relevance, political indignation, representational complexity and verbal excess" in his trilogy - differing significantly from the "bourgeois", affable stylistic approaches prevailing in contemporary Balkan cinema.

In my own essay, "Paradigm of the Fragility of the Workers Issue in (post-) Socialist Yugoslavia" I explore the wider context in Žilnik’s most recent action, Old School of Capitalism, on the workers' protests in the "Šinvoz" and BEK factories in Zrenjanin, with a focus on his function as a filmmaker and as a social activist, with the aim of paving the way for a broader contextualisation and assessment of his work in the future. I have sought here to draw a parallel between the contradictions inherent in the foundations of the Yugoslav notion of socialist self-management (leaving enough room for potential divergences) and the protests of workers today in Serbia in the process of privatisation. Žilnik's commitment in pursuing the events of the workers' struggle in Zrenjanin has led to a string of developments: to start with - an instructive documentary film made by Žilnik himself, offering workers material for future discussions, operations and strategies; followed by three television instalments made by a group young journalists from Novi Sad, also on the Zrenjanin workers' predicament; and, at present. Žilnik is working intensively on a third phase - documenting the final scenes of a new work based on his experiences in filming a documentary on the "Zrenjanin case". This work will amplify Žilnik's original documentary by offering extensive cross-generational discussions on the positions of workers in Serbia in different time periods.

A remarkable feature of this publication on Želimir Žilnik’s work is the inclusion of issue No. 3 from 1969 edition of ROK magazine on literature, art and aesthetic studies of reality, all of which have been digitalised and re-published for this purpose. At the time the magazine's editor-in-chief (and board director) was the distinguished Yugoslav and contemporary author Bora Ćosić. In many of its issues, ROK magazine appealed to a number of the leading names from the intellectual and literary scenes of former Yugoslavia to seek "new forms of awareness that would be multidimensional, enlightening and liberating in nature", rejecting the aesthetic and political norms prevailing in Yugoslav society. ROK's third issue magazine was entirely dedicated to Žilnik’s film Early Works. It comprised the script of the final version of the film, numerous conflicting news articles on the film, official court documentation on the banning of the film, Žilnik’s closing statement at the trial, the subsequent court decision on lifting the ban and a plethora of official documentation on the cinema in Vojvodina and Yugoslavia in late 1960s, as well as contributions written by Tomaž Šalamun, Bogdan Tirnanić, Marjan Rožanc, Rastko Močnik, Taras Kermauner and Branko Vučićević on Early Works.

Another special feature in this publication is the heretofore inedited video recording and photo documentation from the only theatre play The Gastarbeiter Opera that Želimir Žilnik directed and created in collaboration with the multi-talented artist, musician and conceptual artist Peđa Vranešević from Novi Sad. The The Gastarbeiter Opera was the first work written upon Žilnik’s return to Yugoslavia from Germany in 1977 and was performed on the "Third Stage" of the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad. As cited in the press clipping documentation about this work, "The Gastarbeiter Opera... combines the features of the new theatre trends (at the time), the dark bitter charm of the music-hall and the irony of Brechtian criticism" to reflect the "proletarian mentality in the capitalist labour environment of a West German metropolis". Although The Gastarbeiter Opera had been widely discussed in Germany at the time, it was important for the Yugoslav people to have access to it, because it commented on the issues and symptoms of (un)employment in a socialist environment. Although this particular work is, formally speaking, unusual within the context of Želimir Žilinik’s oeuvre, it does in any case adhere, to a considerable extent, to the topics and issues tackled in many of his films.

On a final note: the title of our project "For an Idea – Against the Status Quo" was taken from an article appearing in the ROK magazine, providing mosaic of conflicting viewpoints, offering the reader a spectrum of the reactions caused by the premiere of Early Works in Yugoslavia. The article says that "with determination and artistic rigour the film exposes the grotesque realities of provincial mire, illiteracy, primitivism, political arbitrariness, acute inequalities, the ineffectualness of student movements and above all the squalor and self-alienation of the working class - i.e. all the reality that is not only historically possible to overcome, but is ... successfully conserved in the intractable collusion of the ideological and the oppressive". And this is the central motif that runs through the many facets of Želimir Žilnik’s cinema.


(1) Boris Buden, excerpt from e-mail correspondence with Branka Ćurčić, November 2008.

(2) This essay is published here in Serbian translation only: original English version will appear in "Ethnicity in Today’s Europe", Roland Hsu (ed.), to be published by Stanford University Press, later in 2009.