Socially Engaged Cinema According to Želimir Žilnik

Dominika Prejdová

"The hidden camera is a scam. It is all right to use in films on timid animals, but it has no place in films with people. I do not hide my camera. I do not hide the fact from people I am shooting that I am making a film. On the contrary. I help them to recognise their own situation and to express their position to it as efficiently as they can, and they help me to create a film about them in the best possible way. When I make a film I am aware that I am betraying the given reality to a certain extent. The way I deal with personalities in a film is, actually, to provide space for original acting. Those people play themselves. They understand that they are interesting as persons and that they have features that are expressive in a cinematic sense." (1)

"Why should one hide the fact that observing affects the observed? Why shouldn’t people state whatever they like and consider effective, why shouldn’t they pose if they feel like posing, why shouldn’t they act for the camera, why shouldn’t they try to force their way into the frame if they feel like it, why shouldn’t they curse and use foul language if they feel that it can fool or entertain someone? Why shouldn’t we document these attempts, attempts of people to affect their own public image and the image of the world they live in when we shoot a documentary?" (2)

Želimir Žilnik

From whatever angle you look at him, Želimir Žilnik (1942) is an exceptional auteur personality. He belongs to the generation of the Yugoslav new wave, the so-called Black Film, and is among the few Serbian filmmakers from that era, still active today. The Black Film was just important as other forms of the European new wave (3), especially in seeking alternatives for cinematic expression, considering the potential film had in examining Yugoslav society at the time. These elements form the basis of Žilnik’s entire oeuvre. Petar Jončić pictures it as a persistent penetration of the antithesis between formal experiment and the humanistic context with the curve of Žilnik’s development fitting in between.

Consistency and Continuity

Žilnik’s oeuvre is constantly evolving within its own configuration, its construction unfolding directly before the observer's eyes, as evidenced by the filmmaker's personal rapport with the subject matter of his films in which he associates people’s individual destinies with their environment in a unique manner. Žilnik’s work is so consistent that it can be observed as an entity – a whole whose individual parts constantly convey a basic premise in a new way and adjust its expression in accordance with the current social situation. The prevailing social and political issues of a specific moment in time determine the existential aspect of human destinies featured in Žilnik’s films. They crystallise the essential theme that runs through all Žilnik’s work – the relationship between ideology and its consequences on people’s lives. Žilnik’s approach becomes apparent in his critical views of not only the Yugoslav communist system but also of the repressive system in Germany in the seventies – where he lived and work at the time; following his return he has continually foreseen and directly documented the dramatic changes in Yugoslavia since the second half of the eighties.

The Distance

In Žilnik's films the representation of the relationship between an individual and the society he lives in is quite unique: all the action results from a given destiny in its relation to society. It is a formal mosaic-like reality that, in conveying different attitudes and connecting them to apparently insignificant details, so deepens the message of that connectedness. For example, in the film Fortress Europe (2000) Žilnik examines the issues facing illegal immigrants from former communist countries from the points of view of immigrants and policemen. He also devises semi-documentary episodes from the immigrants' lives. In this way he expands the context of the film, and at the same time he diminishes its overt political nature. The same technique can be seen in his first documentary films with which he started his career in cinema. In his documentaries on social problems in socialist Yugoslavia, he always avoided any form of pathos - something most filmmakers would have been drawn to naturally under the circumstances. In Little Pioneers (the title was taken from a pioneer song in 1968), the core of the film is comprised of confessions made by children living on the streets. They speak openly before the camera about their experiences of abuse and squalor, but one can also sense a certain joy they have in living on the streets. Žilnik juxtaposes these confessions with scenes at a circus where these ragamuffins congregate and have fun like "normal" children. He then cuts to a mother whining in frustration over her naughty children. The street children’s confessions are in no way undermined, on the contrary, they are intensified by contrast when they are suddenly presented as ordinary children, who, just in passing, speak of things that challenge one's classic notions of childhood. "The essence of a documentary is not to betray the characters of the people who appear in it. This means that it would be a bad thing to depict a good, well-mannered child as a juvenile delinquent. But when we show a homeless person or an idler as he or she is, then I think we can incorporate some narrative elements in order to convey their situations in a more effective way. As soon as we begin shooting a film we always betray reality in some way." (4) The same is valid for The Unemployed from 1968. In this film Žilnik confronts several unemployed people with a series of questions, and though they respond quickly they often avoid giving direct answers. In the end, the film is an assemblage of sequences that effectively point to specific problems, but the montage of these sequences, seen as a whole, ultimately conveys a universal condition of unemployment. Žilnik's films are not spectacles consisting of "slices of life", an approach he rejected from the beginning; instead, he preferred to tackle reality in a constructive manner. Above all his films represent a certain state, a situation. Although he hails from cinéma verité, Žilnik bases his approach solely on a critical revision of his own experience. He touches on authentic histories, but he does not allow them to be the main topic of the film. These histories are supplemented with some elements belong to other genres. Žilnik's essayistic approach can be said to be closest to Godard's.

From the very beginning, Žilnik has focused on the relationship between ideology and society. His protagonists are people from the fringes of society (street children, unemployed people, workers, homeless people, foreign workers, transvestites, illegal immigrants, Roma people), who are either hit by the consequences of the faults in the system or expose those faults with their own lives. They are the clearest possible mirror of the social system. Through their adherence to fringe groups they reflect the society's system of values (for example in Marble Ass, 1995, a film featuring transvestites in Belgrade in the 1990's, the protagonists "unconventional" behaviour is presented as the only acceptable one in an environment perverted by war militarism).

Žilnik maintains a certain distance from his topics and protagonists and avoids pathos and sentimentality, choosing instead a mosaic-like structure that incorporates elements of provocation, debate and humour, which at first glance seem to even contradict the issues and impressions he wants to convey. He questions things in a detached manner, and in their final form these elements enhance the film's truthfulness and aid him in exposing a multitude of layers, offering new insights into the protagonists' complex realities.

The filmmaker's straightforward, yet detached relationship to the protagonist is transferred to the spectators. The spectators do not identify with the protagonists, as is usually the case, but continually seek other ways to understand them and their actions. The narrative structure of the film is so "open", and at the same time so frequently paradoxical, that the audience can never predict what will happen next. The spectator thus becomes a collaborator in the film and is involved in its unfolding. As Branislav Miltojević remarked - with regard to the director’s television period in the 1980's: Žilnik moulds the character of his cinematic fiction out of ordinary facts - in the manner of Jean Rouch, and enables the spectator to be present at the moment of the birth of a teleplay. (5) The spectator cannot be sure of the veracity of the characters in the film and of their stories. Žilnik thus simulates (without hiding the simulation) the observation of real life. He shoots his films from the position of a rapt and constantly amazed observer and offers the spectators a view from the same position. (In the 1980's at the time of documentary television drama, he shot his films practically without a teleplay/screenplay).

The peak of Žilnik’s early documentary films in which he attained his most distinctive level of "auteurism" is undoubtedly marked by his Black Film, 1971. Here he assembles several homeless people in the street and brings them to his home to discuss their problems, but, above all to make a film. For the first time, Žilnik becomes one of the protagonists in the film. He parodies his role as a filmmaker by making other people uneasy for the purpose of the film, whilst declaring that he is making a socially engaged film as a form of apology. In the introductory part he parodies the casting process for a feature film by having each homeless person introducing himself in front of the camera... and he includes himself in the process (including his introduction that, considering his earnings, he lives comfortably in his apartment). Then he takes these people to his flat, where his wife and small child are still asleep, and puts them up there for two days. The film then shows him asking bystanders in the streets and officials of various institutions how the problems faced by these homeless people can be solved (at the same time he is also seen trying to solve "their" problem from his own angle – as becomes apparent when he confides in the people on the streets that the homeless smell terribly and that he cannot keep them in his house). When he is unable to find a solution himself he is seen asking the homeless if they have any idea of how to solve the problem... and then he asks them to leave because his filming venture is nearing its end. Thus the film ends without having solved anything. "The question Žilnik poses in this film is how much have his previous attempts to change the world through his films been successful in changing his own life and attitude toward the world. It also marks the emergence of an abstract humanist cinema which served as a critical device, often including the filmmaker's own life as a potential object of criticism. The last shot of the film - in which Žilnik announces that, after having allowed six homeless people into his life for a short while, he has run out of tape for the film, and it is time for them to take leave from one another - can be interpreted as a liberal show of demagogy and callousness on his part toward these people, but it can also be seen as a self-chastising act by 'leaving the unpaid debt' with oneself and one’s craft." (6) The motif of the filmmaker's doubts on the effects of his documentary film will be constantly present in Žilnik’s work.

Actor – The Simple Man

The extraordinary space Žilnik allots to his protagonists to express themselves, as described in the introductory quotation, also explores the role of the camera in the process – the protagonist adapts to it, utilises it as a means for self-expression, gets to know other people through it. Žilnik often brings real persons who do not know one another together in a simulated meeting, thus sowing the seeds for a drama bordering on documentary and fiction.

In Žilnik's repeatedly disrupted narrative, a prominent feature in his approach, the narrative is not merely disrupted by an unexpected development in the story. In his probably most original creative phase, upon his return from Germany, when he began working for Novi Sad Television, he conceived of a new genre of film: the documentary drama. Here the essayistic quality of the documentary is accompanied by his free approach to directing. He submerges his actor-amateurs in the creative process of filmmaking by constructing the film on their stories as they unfold. These are stories of outsiders who have things they believe in and who tell specific stories that represent them. This unusual approach of involving "the naturals" is an intrinsic part of the film's creation. Their stories reflect social problems often associated with bureaucracy. (In Vera and Eržika (1981) a textile worker cannot meet the requirements necessary for her pension documents to be processed earlier because of a strange pension law that ends up calculating that her employment history should have begun on her fifteenth birthday. This binding paragraph has a major effect on her life and has forced to take on extra jobs to fill in the years she is "missing"). And then there are also stories about people with unusual talents or qualities, who have never received recognition from society: a prolific writer whose works have never been published (The Comedy and Tragedy of Bora Joksimović); a man who can devour glass (Hot Paychecks); a girl who can imitate Jerry Lewis perfectly (The Second Generation); or simply people from a distinctive environment (the children of foreign workers in The Second Generation, The First Trimester of Pavle Hromiš; people living in villages in Montenegro – Brooklyn-Gusinje). Žilnik does not compel his amateurs to perform like professional actors. On the contrary, he openly disposes of the classic methods directing and acting, allowing them instead to gradually enter the spirit of the roles of their own persons or at the most of someone from their environment (in this manner Žilnik's works bear some resemblance to Andy Warhol’s films). He will incorporate spontaneous errors – by repeating takes, allowing participants to not react promptly to other participants’ lines, etc. A salient feature of these films is their original humour. By allowing the camera to lingering on moments past their expected course of action, Žilnik manages to shift the boundaries of that which is exposed (moments of unpleasantness, irony, mockery), but never at the expense of the protagonist, and thus his films always have something of a tragicomedy.

Despite the fact that films portray the protagonists in a complex and unusually direct manner, they always honour their dignity. The drama is a blend of fiction and biography, and this fusion conveys the main protagonist's state of mind in a unique way. Mixing documentary and fictional scenes, in which the actors are either themselves or simply playing themselves, adds a new dimension to their personalities, a new key to who they are. In going beyond the classic documentary method (such as incorporating an interview), the filmmaker is able to convey the protagonists' idiosyncratic behaviour and views on life in a more intimate manner. (7)

According to Petar Jončić, the narrative structure and addressing of social issues in the form of interviews held with many protagonists have replaced the standard biographies of ordinary people, a shift that effectively contradicts earlier documentaries dealing with social issues. Classic film language – with its focus on camera movement, rhythm, composition - is pushed into the background here to provide more space in the foreground for the protagonists' dialogue and spontaneous drama. (8)

That is propelled forward in the course of the action that develops the protagonists react more spontaneously; their points of view are refreshingly unconventional and reflect many aspects of their environment. The Illness and Recovery of Buda Brakus (1980) acquires something of a scientific-historical film through the subjective interpretation of events on the part of its main protagonist, a WWI veteran, who puts Serbian history into a new context. Žilnik has a Serbian historical subject in his short documentary Uprising in Jazak in which some older people remember the communist resistance movement in their village. But in this film his representation of history attains a completely new character: The villagers relive their war experiences in front of the camera. Their expressive way of conveying the communist interpretation of war contributes to a new social and individual awareness. Even those who went through these times did not manage to provide a statement that differed from the official and illusory one. (9) The film also speaks about the distinctive folk creation of the post-war myth of the partisan resistance movement. Here the filmmaker shows how ideology not only influences its subjects but can also in part be created by the subjects themselves. Žilnik's drama Brooklyn-Gusinje explores ethnological aspects. The story is set in Montenegro in a Montenegrin-Albanian village, and the main protagonist, a Serb woman, becomes a "mediator" as she familiarises herself with Albanian tradition and culture. A direct contemporary political context is also present in the film Oldtimer, 1989, in which a Slovenian rocker DJ communicates with participants in the first wave of nationalist Serb protests.

Žilnik identifies the specific links between ideology and individual lives – an individual’s destiny collides with the system head on and, in doing so, reveals its dysfunctional character and its ludicrous notions that often have destructive consequences: the farcical aspects of the Yugoslav socialist legal system – in Vera and Eržika; the difficulties faced by children of foreign workers in the Yugoslav educational system – in The Second Generation; the involvement of the authorities in nationalist demonstrations – in Oldtimer. On other occasions Žilnik will present a topic that is directly in contrast with the current social situation. In a time when hatred and prejudice were being deliberately sown against Albanians (1987), the film Brooklyn-Gusinje, exposes their status in Yugoslav society yet also points out the contributions of Albanian culture and spiritual identity – in order to contradict stereotypical images. (10)

Whilst in the first phase of his socially engaged documentaries Žilnik’s criticism does not explore areas beyond the individual features of the system, now, in the eruption of the system’s paradoxes, Žilnik portrays the system as unsustainable and self-destructive. He depicts the transition from a communist to nationalist system of values by showing a degenerate and humongous bureaucratic apparatus as a backdrop for change.

Asking Questions

Even in his documentary dramas, Žilnik does not renounce on his characteristic essayist methods. (11) Oldtimer is a potpourri of reporting, road movie and travelogue. In the last third of each of the two films Oldtimer and Brooklyn-Gusinje it is as if the gravity of the subject matter presented were abruptly turned on its head; the course of action up to that point is suddenly evaluated and criticised. And both films end unexpectedly.

Both films end when their protagonists decide to leave the country where a normal life for them has become impossible. The protagonist of Oldtimer, a rocker from Ljubljana takes off to Greece on a motorbike. "The war has not started yet, but it is better to be prepared." His character reflects the anarchistic liberalism of the 1980's in Yugoslavia and also the irreversible end of an epoch. This distancing approach seems to have replaced the previous mosaic-like quality the filmmaker employed to attain a certain detachment from the topic and it also seems to reflect the filmmaker’s need to demystify film as a medium. It is as if Žilnik were saying: I can depict life in Montenegro as it is, everyday life, the close-knit community of the Albanians and their culture, their relations with the Serbs... I can even show a believable Serbian-Albanian love story. I can show anti-Albanian demonstrations, blatant hate speeches, the blind euphoria of clan rituals, malicious campaigns against other nations... all of which seems to point to the beginning of a war, the decomposition of a country. But I choose to leave my protagonists live their own stories.

Ideology as an Integral Part of Life

The final period of Žilnik’s documentary dramas is in connection with his activity in the war turmoil of the 1990's. In 1992, when a nationalistic trend began to set in, Žilnik resigned the position of editor-in-chief of the "arts&culture" department of Novi Sad Television, set up his own production company in Budapest (Spring 1993) and began shooting films as foreign co-productions and collaborated with oppositional media in Serbia (the broadcaster B92), primarily in video. Žilnik returned to his roots, to a certain extent, with a documentary short that reflected his experience in shooting documentary dramas. In Tito among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994) he brings Tito back among the people in the streets of Belgrade to have him see how his people are now living without him as the head of the country. Tito’s double wanders around Belgrade and procures remarkable reactions. Groups of people gather speak to him, feeling the need to formulate their destinies. (12) In this film Žilnik allots most of the space to people’s statements, showing a cross-section of Serbian society and its attitude toward the past and the current governments. The picture he creates is complex. He presents a diversity of attitudes and moods, often punctuating the dominant story with comical scenes and also moments of tragedy (talks with refugees from Bosnia or soldiers who returned from the front). Tito’s character functions primarily as a catalyst, leaving more space to people to express themselves (some of them appear more than once). A surreal encounter is suddenly established with the people's past: the period of Serbia's sharpest inflation (1993), the biggest economic crisis, the consequences of a war in which Serbia never participated officially, at the time of a nationalistic discourse and evaluating the communist past with Tito as its leader. What emerges is the ideological confusion in which the people find themselves, through their cohabitation with ideology, their familiarity with nationalistic rhetoric and the conspiracy theory of the "others" endorsed by the media and accepted by the people automatically ("Europe and America are the guiltiest in the war; Serbia has no responsibility for the war"); but the people appearing in the film can also rationally review their own situation ("This war will never end, those who started it are still in power… we fight over whose hill it is… by the time we determine that, nobody will be alive… we are taking what doesn’t belong to us"). Maybe that is why no one is even surprised by Tito rising from the dead. People live in their surreal idealistic world. One woman says: "I cried when you died, and then I felt remorse because of it, and now I’d vote for you again, only under a pseudonym". Žilnik shows us people who have grown accustomed to their lack of freedom, to the leader, to swift and zealous conversions to other ideologies and events, without ever finding time to comprehend and digest their own attitudes toward it all. "And then, once the leader is gone, we malign him. The past disappears, is never rationally appraised. It becomes a big black hole, a taboo, a gap in our identity. And taboos lead to repression and the savagery in Bosnia." (13)

Following a selected referential axis, Žilnik delivers strong results: he examines the values of Tito’s regime ("brotherhood and unity"), and at the same time in people’s confessions, Tito’s regime is seen as a problem (we lived on foreign loans, your bureaucracy still rules, but we lived well), liberating in this way the very viewpoint of the future. "From the reactions of the people with whom the Tito double speaks, we understand that Titoism is still not exhausted, neither politically nor emotionally, so it still participates in structuring the Yugoslav reality. When we speak of FR Yugoslavia, then we cannot simply speak of a chameleon transformation to nationalist populism or about the replacement of a communist leader by a nationalist one (Josip Broz by Slobodan Milošević); it portrays a much more complex situation, an ideological confusion, the kind of ideological and semantic legacy that leads to the increase in social tension and upheaval." (14) In this work by Žilnik one can identify a direct link between people and ideology that has subconsciously determined the view of their reality and themselves.

Criticising the System

Žilnik's criticism of the system is the topic of his first feature film Early Works (1969), which was probably his most recognised success (winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival). The film is partially autobiographical: when he was young Žilnik was an active member in the Communist Party. It tells the story of three revolutionaries led by a young woman, who are determined to spread the notions of the communist revolution in Serbian villages. The protagonists undergo various political experiences, they work in a factory, they educate farmers, they examine the pleasures of free love; they are subjected to political propaganda, war and, in the end, death. It ends in the men killing the woman (the anarchistic core) and then they return to their petty bourgeois lives. The film is an ideal recapitulation of the leftist movements in the 1960's incorporating the roots of authentic Marxism – the screenplay was based on quotations from Marx’s Early Works (Marx was credited as co-author of the screenplay). Political dogmatism is seen from a reverse angle, showing a representation of real life which it is not capable of changing. Žilnik has put Marx’s lines in the mouths of his protagonists in the form of dialogue, in order to "convey the bizarre revolutionary illusionism typical of the student upheavals of 1968." (15) The film is above all a story about a certain state of helplessness on the part of revolutionaries to change society and themselves. "The film tries to demystify the religious myths of socialism", says Žilnik. The entire structure of the film is a collage of spontaneously initiated and terminated episodes, sometimes there are fictional episodes, sometimes documentary sequences and even simple visual provocations. The narrative is not a smooth, intact entity but is instead riddled with digressions and other narrative planes. "Slogans are translated into actions and – as observed by Hrvoje Turković – the preoccupation with rhetoric is ultimately the consequence of the filmmaker’s interest in ideology and the like… He uses manifestations and fragments taken from the 'lower levels' of society - censored political slogans, witty verses, decasyllables, forbidden jokes, pent-up desires… and he juxtaposes them with the officially established canons of the 'higher levels', i.e. with the official ideology, culture." (16) The film is an improvisation on politics, morality, social reality that constitute the framework of the film: politics is the protagonists' chief interest and sphere for their ambitions; political symbols are their everyday insignia; sex is a social and political act. An improvisation on the "serious" foundations in communist ideology influences the visual aspects of the film. By filming exteriors in total shots, placing objects and actors in the distance – in some scenes, characters are "generalized" and become mere symbols. "One has the impression that only one basic personality can confront Marx’s ideas and reality in the village." (17) Apart from a basic scepticism regarding revolutionary ideology, the film also offers some criticism of the Yugoslav interpretation of communism. A scene, in which the protagonists play soldiers, marching and shooting at one another, is a reference to the popularisation of militarism under Tito’s regime in the genre of partisan war films, clearly evincing Žilnik’s criticism of the system.

Marble Ass (1995) conveys Žilnik's criticism of the militant attitude and patriarchal features of Milošević’s system in the 1990's. These recurrent motifs reflect a cross-section of an analytical view in Žilnik’s work. They document what is recurrent in the systems and what problems they generate.

Žilnik returned to his direct criticism of ideology at the end of the 1980's in a feature film, The Way Steel was Tempered (1988). It was as if this sort of criticism is being repeated twenty years after Early Works – this time showing interest in the state of socialist society in its second breaking point. In a satirical comedy set in the proletarian environment of a steel factory, with professional actors playing the leading roles, Žilnik comments on the twilight of socialism. He pokes fun at the worn-out symbols of socialism which still function in real life... symbols that still have, although in another way, a greater value than real life. The protagonist is asked to pose as a model for a social-realist sculpture, a new icon of social-realist art, but when he accepts this offer, foreign customers buy off the old machinery of the factory he works in. The socialist symbols in the film become the symbols of a surreal life at the end of socialism. Life is detached from reality, devoid of a system of values that could offer it a foundation. The very values of communism have become ludicrous here: they all steal, have fun, live off the system like parasites whatever way they like, whilst building a parallel life abroad. The film is a parody of a non-functioning society where the decay of a system of values is widely accepted as the norm. Žilnik simultaneously exposes the immoral behaviour of the workers and their bosses who differ from one another only in the stake of power they still have. He portrays the absurdly intractable functioning of society and the unruly disintegration of socialism which foreshadowed the disintegration of the country in 1990's.

Marble Ass (1995) depicts the catastrophe of the 1990's through the milieu on the fringes of society in Belgrade. The protagonists are real characters, the transvestites Merlin and Sanela, who, in the desolate atmosphere of war, destruction, and omnipotent violence, comfort their customers with physical love and by accentuating the features of their female identities. Confronted with the reappearance of Johnny, who has just returned from the frontlines and is incapable of acting other than in a militant and violent way, Sanela and Merlin are the embodiment of an alternative to the war machinery. The film shows a degenerate war environment as a consequence of the hypertrophy of the macho world which turns men into killing machines. Žilnik questions the standard interpretations of male and female worlds by featuring transvestites as apostles of love, while the behaviour of Johnny’s girlfriend (also on leave from battle) reflects the machinery of violence. The film is an apocalyptic vision of Serbian society in the 1990's, "the most radical metaphor of the country’s disintegration" (18) Žilnik sees the fringes of society not only as the reflection of its disintegration but also as a realm of hope for its restoration. Not only do Merlin and Sanela not want to have anything in common with the "male" depressed world, they actively confront it. Not accepted by the society, Sanela and Merlin seem far more normal than the society that has cast them to the fringes. The film also condemns patriarchal Serbian society where "otherness" is considered to be a threat. With his transvestite characters, Žilnik again defends the right to be "different", one of the central topics of his work. "Žilnik shows us how transvestites and homosexuals parade with a faux female glamour, similar to the iconography of the new singing stars on the stage, which have, as a result of the popularity of state television, become symbols of the time. In Marble Ass the spiritual deficiency in a society where kitsch and militarism prevail, is conveyed by the phenomenon of physical surrealism (transvestites) and the body cult (Sanela marries a body-builder), because the economic crisis in the country allowed all forms of social degeneration (weapon bearing, drug addiction, robbery, murders) to be generally accepted." (19) The film is set in an unconventional milieu to make the criticism of the system more visible. Žilnik chose transvestites as the protagonists of his film at the time when social heroes were seen as warriors and patriots. "Summer 1994. The Balkans’ butcher-house operates at full capacity speed. In order for it to function, it must be 'lubricated' by State propaganda machinery, a huge outlet for stereotypes. The 'authentic Serb' adorns his chest with bullets and his mouth with a knife. He is also a macho, drinking himself to death, trumpet music around him. Violating girls behind bar counters. Try to recollect the heroes and the stories of the hit movies at that time, and the millions of dollars the State invested in them! And the co-producers from the West were also there, ready for such projects. The news on TV unfolds in a cabaret atmosphere dominated by weekend warriors... Today, ten years later, everyone is finally aware of the fact, that what happened in the realms of media and culture was a fool’s paradise instrument wielded and funded through transactions of huge amounts of money, through the plundering of property, households and homes. The state and party elite and commanders of the paramilitary became all the more brazen by the black market and the trade of arms and human lives. The war was a black cloud enveloping the emanation and production process of a new post-Yugoslav ruling class." (20)

The Theme of Migration as a Metaphor of Existence

There is a recurrent motif of migration and travel in Žilnik’s work. The motif of immigrant workers is already present in his films made in the era of socialist Yugoslavia - when millions of citizens went abroad to work and ended up contributing to the development of society. Žilnik sees migratory labour not so much as an economic occurrence but as a cultural and social phenomenon. This view is represented in a large number of his films from the beginning of his oeuvre until the end of 1980's (as in the film The Women are Coming (1972), in which he portrays women workers and their specific problems). Also during his stay in Germany where he moved when the Black Wave faced repression in the 1970's, Žilnik committed himself to the issues facing foreign workers (in 1974 he made two documentaries – Inventur and Antrag). Upon his return to Yugoslavia, in the film The Second Generation (1984), he tells the story of a child whose parents are off working in Germany and who has been sent back to be educated in his "original" environment. The protagonist, culturally and linguistically alienated, his identity split between the two nations, finds it hard to be part of society. He does not feel at home anywhere. First he flees back to Germany, where he finds no solution, and then he returns and tries to make friends with other children who have also lived abroad. He is unable to adapt to the school system that is rooted in Marxist principles, and he is in constant conflict with the law. Žilnik ends Vladimir Sinko’s true story on a fictional note: in the film the boy ultimately finds refuge in the police academy, his only safe haven being at the core of the system. Žilnik points to the existential essence of the problem: the inability to find one’s own identity. What is revealed here is a radical separation between ideology and real life. Žilnik is intrigued by a specific moment of existence which seems to be frozen in time as if it were stagnating without any solution in sight. This theme continues to be explored in Žilnik’s latest films, such as Fortress Europe (2000) about illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe whom the West refuses to accept. The documentary Kenedi Goes Back Home (2003) tells of Roma people who flee from the war in the Balkans to Germany in the 1990's and who, ten years later, are forced against their will to return to Serbia. Žilnik shows immigrants' lives in relation to the prevailing ideology shaped today by the borders between rich and poor and by the often racist selection process that determines which emigrants will be accepted into Western Europe. In presenting the dilemmas and identifying the crises these people face, he appeals for a solution.

Žilnik does not deny that he is on the side of his heroes (they are given the limelight), but at the same time he never shows them as people who should be pitied. He does not seek to be objective; he observes ideology only through its effects on people, thus questioning its legitimacy. He introduces his protagonists in a simple manner and then follows them as they seek solutions to their problems. Žilnik frequently composes collective scenes (such as the gatherings of refugees in Belgrade and Budapest) in which a variety of viewpoints are expressed. In Fortress Europe a Russian refugee, whose daughter and wife left for Italy, shares his situation with Serbian refugees. Based on their own experiences they advise him not to return, that his life must continue along the road he is on, that he must stay with his daughter and secure a better future for her. Žilnik shows Serbs living in Hungary who fled the bombardments: "There we were: after having opposed a regime for ten years, we suddenly found ourselves put in a situation to fight for it; the only option left to us was simply to leave". The scenes conveying these exchanges of experiences, hardships and words of advice convey valuable moments of human bonding and togetherness.

Žilnik’s films are strong because they all ultimately convey the power of human perseverance. The straightforward and compelling presence of the protagonists is not merely owing to the fact that they are played by authentic people, but also to Žilnik’s distinctive approach. He may show them at difficult moments in their lives in which they face social predicaments, but he always emphasises the positive features of their existence – by depicting their values, their connection to their families, their communities and their traditions. Foreign workers, immigrants, Roma... they are people on the road, seeking to rediscover their lives that somehow got derailed by the system. Their existences have become metaphors for the quests and the destinies of those who have had to start their lives over from scratch.

This text was first published as: Prejdová, D.: Angažovaný film podle Želimira Žilnika. In: DO III revue pro dokumentární film, č.3/2005, ed.: Slováková, A., p. 231-245.

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.


(1) Vladislav Urban: My films are optimistic, Dnevnik, Novi Sad, 14 April, 1968

(2) Miroljub Stojanović (ed.): Želimir Žilnik: Above the Red Dust, Institut za Film, Belgrade, 2003, p.125

(3) Yugoslav wave was considered to be the most radical of all the current cinematografies of the Eastern Europe. For example, the French critique Marcel Martin says: More engaged than the Czechoslovakian film, more aggressive than the Hungarian, Yugoslav film is probably in the political sense most decisive and clearest of all the socialist cinematographies (Les Lettres Francaises, 2 September 1969.)

(4) J.A. Film protest, Filmski Svet review, Belgrade 25 April, 1968

(5) Branislav Miltojević: Želimir Žilnik's Early Works (Rani radovi Želimira Žilnika), Sirius, Niš, 1992, p.169

(6) Petar Jončić: Želimir Žilnik's Film Language (Filmski jezik Želimira Žilnika), SKC, Belgrade, 2002, p. 58

(7) Petar Jončić here points out to the ideal closeness of Žilnik's documentary dramas with E. Rohmer's films. See, Jončić, Petar: cd, p. 88.

(8) Ibid, p. 84

(9) An important Croat author, Slavenka Drakulić in her book "They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in the Hague" (Penguin, 2005) points out to the importance of the official version of war that has never become historical, but is constantly seen on the emotional level, manipulating people with fear of the recurrence of the Second World War during the early 1990's.

(10) In a similar way, Srđan Karanović's film "A Film with No Name", 1988, tries to confirm the authenticity of the Albanian minority within the Serbian society.

(11) B. Miltojević describes it as: Neutral storytelling, dramaturgical weaving of quotations and word, open subjective complex of author’s signs, insisting on imagining and not on creating topics and dilemmas, author’s hard work to rationalise the viewers’ point of view and identification and to influence him critically. See: Branislav Miltojević, CD, p. 173

(12) Both for Mićko (who plays Tito) and for the entire crew it was amazing how people came up to him and directly spoke to him. Without the introductory phrase of the kind: I know you’re not Tito, but…, Says Žilnik. Zorica Pašić: Talks with own past, TV Novosti weekly, Belgrade, 18 May 1994.

(13) Želimir Žilnik quoted in: Roger Cohen: Tito Lives Again but Like Ex-Nation Is Bewildered. New York Times, 30.4.1994.

(14) Jončić quotes Dejan Sretenovic, see cd, p.128.

(15) Ibid., p. 42

(16) B. Miltojević, cd, p. 174

(17) Petar Volk: Contemporary Yugoslav Film, University of Arts, Film Institute, Belgrade, 1994, p. 290

(18) Petar Ljubojev: Ethics and Aesthetics of the Screen, Prosveta, Belgrade, 1997.

(19) P. Jončić, cd. P. 132.

(20) Miroljub Stojanović (ed): cd, p. 151