Želimir Žilnik's Kenedi Trilogy: Solidarity Outside the Walls of Fortress Europe

Jurij Meden

While Europe is proudly and brashly expanding in line with its sterile, politically correct guidelines on the grounds of an artificial (indeed phoney) and paradoxical concept of "European identity", invisible and impenetrable walls are shooting up along its borders, spreading like a cancer throughout regions beyond the fortress. Just as invisible as those walls are the numerous stories of the peoples left "outside". Thanks to Želimir Žilnik, a rare breed of a filmmaker who (still) believes that cinema can (also) act as a weapon of social intervention, certain dark corners of Europe’s backyard are being exposed, certain otherwise invisible stories are being made visible, and, in the case of Želimir Žilnik, rendered palpable... and even piercing.

His trilogy of films chronicling four years of the life of a certain Kenedi Hasani – an uprooted Rom, a kind, witty, resourceful and almost pathologically optimistic street rat, a true cosmopolitan – represents an example of a political cinema par excellence and a key contribution to the socially engaged cinema of the Balkans in the last decade. No less importantly, it also seems to represent a pinnacle of Žilnik’s recent oeuvre that adheres to that established (and so often ignored) paradigm that only by being precise and local can one strive to achieve a universal meaning. It is precisely by remaining focused on the destinies of "ordinary" people, the people who would have otherwise remained voiceless and invisible, that Žilnik is granted the most comprehensive right to question and criticize the wider politics that create such unfortunate destinies.

The wider context lurking behind the personal story here: ruthless deportations of war refugees from civilized Europe and a new instance of immobility imposed on the residents of the recently established Balkan states. The stories of the humiliated, the impoverished, the silenced are told by Žilnik strictly from the perspective of those affected. Žilnik had already tackled (and attacked) similar political anomalies in his film Fortress Europe of 2000, in which numerous interwoven tragic stories of "illegal aliens" served to shed light on a systematic and politically endorsed xenophobia that constitutes the very building bricks of that fortress. This time he digs even deeper and focuses on a single and singular character, Kenedi Hasani, whose person gradually – but all the more forcefully – transcends from the real to the symbolic, from the "navel" on which the director casts his initial gaze (the source of some unjustified criticism of the three films) to a rousing reminder of the aching body of politics that has produced his environment.

This festering body that has created the circumstances triggering Kenedi Hasani’s struggle for a better tomorrow and the awe-inspiring vitality of the protagonist himself would suffice on their own – in the sense of their political and emotional potential – to compose an intriguing and gripping story under the guidance of almost any socially engaged chronicler with a camera. Žilnik, of course, would not be Žilnik – the enfant terrible of Yugoslav cinema for already forty years with an undiminished intensity – had he not upgraded extended Kenedi’s odyssey in yet another masterpiece of his unique and compelling directorial vision.

What – on a formal level – stands out at first glance, is Žilnik’s distinctive blend of documentary and fictional elements to create an indivisible entity that adheres only to the axioms of authenticity and honesty, signalling along the way the absurdity of drawing strict relentless lines between these two modes of cinematographic expression, while the only thing that should count is the intention behind the expression itself.

Thus Kenedi Goes Back Home was, ostensibly, shot in medias res, in the form of an entirely factual travelogue, in which all the people encountered appear (or least represent) as themselves only. Kenedi, Lost and Found, the only short film in the trilogy, is an entirely straightforward documentary narrative. And, Kenedi is Getting Married presents itself as an almost pure work of fiction, which of course is probably not entirely true, since at least parts of the story are or allegedly are meticulous reconstructions of Kenedi’s actual experiences. But even as such, this film hardly passes for a fabrication; after all, its main protagonist is as real as they come, moreover, the story is driven by a loose, cathartic narrative structure, in which apparent reconstructions of the character's recent past, continue to progress, steadily or at times brusquely, into what seems to be an open-ended present, in the here and now, where the real Kenedi is simply interacting with real persons around him in real time.

For a cinema to exist as a delicate and seldom seen genre, where the suspension of disbelief is questioned alongside other notable issues provided by the narrative, it may call for the involvement of not only authentic non-actors but also talented performers. And it should be mentioned that Kenedi, apart from possessing a rich personal history and an alluring character, also has an extraordinary talent for acting, or more precisely, a talent for improvisation. Žilnik himself alludes to the fact that most of Kenedi’s dialogues and monologues are a matter of pure improvisation, which, considering his staggering vitality, sometimes threatens to devour the film from within, and yet seem to be the only possible truth. Some native German speakers have complained, most likely rightfully, that the acting of the Austrian protagonists in Kenedi is Getting Married is painfully stiff and stilted. Yet it would be equally fair to presume that almost any actor placed next to Kenedi would turn into a block of wood. Simply because this prodigy belongs in that noble league of hyperactive, hyper naturalistic, intuitive, rough-mannered, bigger-than-life actors... akin to the likes of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, the breed that hails from the stables of John Cassavetes who is probably the only other genius fit to direct Kenedi Hasani.

All the social relevance, political wrath, representational complexity and verbal excess of the trilogy is packed within a visual minimalism – another staple of Žilnik's – resembling nothing but cheapness from afar, whereas what we are really witnessing is an economy of expression that only the sharpest and humblest of eyes is capable of perceiving. This visual strategy serves, amongst other things, to admonish us of the necessity of form to organically develop from content. Moreover it harshly condemns the affable, polished (they used to call them "bourgeois") cinematic forms that sadly prevail in the contemporary "socially engaged" cinema of the Balkans - forms which equate the film experience with the placation of one's conscience (one needn't look very hard to find this apologetic, mind-numbing aesthetic that is now flooding the Balkans).

In contrast, Želimir Žilnik is not in the function of comforting his audiences. His images are there primarily to bite and to scrutinize. His visuals are ugly, raw and mobile, devoid of any extraneous music and stuck together by abrupt cuts which swiftly propel the film forward in time; all in pitch-perfect tune with the foul reality and uncertain future that Žilnik’s protagonists are forced to face. For the trilogy to be able to schlep onward through the Euro-mud encompassing it, only Kenedi’s resourcefulness and passionate will to continue (and even enjoy the process) in spite of the worst possible conditions are to "blame". These two attributes – inventiveness and stubbornness – are also at the core of Žilnik’s creativity. Kenedi Hasani can thus be seen as Želimir Žilnik’s alter-ego of sorts and The Kenedi Trilogy possibly as Žilnik’s most intimate cinematic achievement.

Which brings us to another remarkable and rare characteristic of our author’s signature; his uncompromising respect for his subjects which rhymes – in its intensity – only with an equally uncompromising criticism of their unfortunate environments – in this case the European bureaucracy and the cesspit it has produced.

Kenedi’s indestructible lust for life renders him a perhaps more comic than tragic hero, and especially Kenedi is Getting Married functions perfectly as a black, occasionally even slapstick comedy. But Žilnik is not laughing at Kenedi, he is laughing with him. He is expressing genuine solidarity with this living metaphor of a painful absence of clear social identities and economic stability - something that apparently does not affect "developed" Europe, or, if it does, it deals with these "problems" purely on an abstract level and strictly in the light of its own economic interests, reducing human stories to numbers, stereotypes and market opportunities.

Žilnik, on the contrary, approaches social problems in a simple, concrete and humane manner, which is after all the only working recipe for solving anything; conditioned, of course, by the spirit of solidarity and no other interest serving as motivation. This ability to familiarise and become one with the most marginal and diverse of environments has been Žilnik’s trump card since the very beginning of his career as a filmmaker. Consequently his films fulfil Chris Marker’s legendary utopia that true films about the workers will have to be made by the workers themselves, just as films about penguins will become conclusive only when penguins learn how to use a camera. Žilnik is not afraid to travel to the South Pole in a T-shirt and join the penguins; on top of that, his films not only convey this ability, but share with us the inspiring experience and knowledge gained from taking on these challenges.

Jurij Meden, born in 1977. Film critic and curator. Editor-in-chief of KINO! magazine (http://www.e-kino.si/). Based in Ljubljana.