Old School Capitalism: An interview with Želimir Žilnik
by Greg DeCuir, Jr.
Želimir Žilnik was born in Niš, Serbia in 1942—to be specific, in a concentration camp called “Red Cross.” Žilnik’s mother and father were both sent to this camp during the war as both were staunch antifascists and members of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Both of them were killed before World War II came to its conclusion.
As a war orphan, young Žilnik was raised by his aunts and grandparents in Novi Sad, Serbia. He finished high school in 1960 and was then asked to be the managing director of a local cultural group/publication called Youth Forum–a capacity in which he served from 1961-64.1 Žilnik hosted film programs, film festivals and began writing film criticism. At this time he was also a member of Novi Sad Ciné-club, where he began making short experimental films. Throughout his early filmmaking phase Žilnik’s aim was to be different—almost antiartistic, and focused on reality with his then-burgeoning trademark “rough” esthetic.
Žilnik studied at the Faculty of Law in the University of Novi Sad—he was more interested in sociology but there was no option for that course of study. So he chose law when he understood that it would deal with many of the things he found to be of interest. In 1965, Žilnik began working as an assistant at Avala Film in Belgrade and in 1967 he served as the assistant director for the celebrated Yugoslav cineaste Dušan Makavejev on his film Ljubavni slučaj ili tragedija službenice P.T.T. (Love Affair or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator). The two would maintain a collegial relationship throughout the years and when Žilnik directed his debut feature-length film for the Novi Sad-based production company Neoplanta Film in 1969, he also invited Makavejev to work there, which ultimately resulted in the 1971 film WR: Misterije organizma/Mysteries of the Organism.
Žilnik directed a documentary short in 1967 called Žurnal o omladini na selu, zimi/Journal on Village Youth, Winter because he was interested in people in the countryside, who were ignored due to the accepted Marxist thought that peasant classes would naturally disappear as a result of communism. Journal on Village Youth, Winter received a prize from the Central Committee of the Yugoslav Youth League and the “Žaromet” Award from the film magazine Ekran.2 This film marked Žilnik’s entrance into the ranks of professional production as a director.
In 1968 Žilnik made the documentary short Nezaposleni ljudi/The Unemployed, which was a film about migrant workers and those who were struggling to find employment both at home in Yugoslavia and also in foreign countries. The film was awarded a silver medal from the city of Belgrade and also won the Grand Prix at the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany.3 Žilnik’s cinematic method began to reveal itself powerfully in these early documentaries. As he would later note, for him, cinema is “a tool for knowing the people.”
In 1969 Žilnik directed the short observational documentary Lipanjska gibanja/The June Movements, for which he received another directing prize at the Oberhausen Film Festival. The subject was the student demonstrations in Belgrade in 1968, which immediately followed May ’68 in Paris. This documentary offered a vivid snapshot of a turbulent era and also served as the inspiration for Žilnik’s debut feature-length film Rani radovi/Early Works (1969).
Early Works is a film that exemplified the tendencies of the Yugoslav Black Wave: antitraditional form, polemical approaches, socio-critical concerns, oppositional ideology and, a fatalistic conclusion. This film can be viewed as the climax of the Black Wave movement (which lasted from 1963-72) and also its archetypal production. The thematic concern of Early Works was early Marxist ideology and its place within a revolutionary society. As Žilnik notes in this interview, the film contained many of the questions and doubts that were forming in the socialist world in the late Sixties, after the Prague Spring and the various international student movements. Early Works also exhibited what would be the central feature of Žilnik’s esthetic throughout his career: an adherence to utilizing nonfiction materials and style and their blending with sparsely constructed fictional situations.
As he remarks in this interview, Early Works was a controversial film. It prompted the journalist Vladimir Jovičić (who represented the traditional party line through the newspaper Borba) to write an article entitled “The Black Wave in Our Cinema,”4 which coined the very term “Black Wave” and also defined it by implicating specific films and filmmakers exhibiting a polemical and critical (read: unacceptable) stance in their work. The official counterattack against the Yugoslav Black Wave began with this film and this article. As a result, there was certainly a political backlash against these filmmakers, among whom Žilnik was included. In this particular interview, however, Žilnik refrained from mentioning another, more threatening cause for his leaving the country, which he revealed to me in an earlier conversation from a few years ago: “A friend of mine, one of the leading film critics in the country, showed me an official letter he received stating that certain film directors were not to be mentioned in his articles–except upon the event of their deaths. The names of those directors were Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović, Aleksandar Petrović and Želimir Žilnik. I left for Germany the next day.”
Undeterred, Žilnik continued with his provocative critical methods during the German period of his career in the early Seventies. As he recalls, he also learned the techniques that would serve him later in his career as an independent filmmaker, which in fact would be the only career option for him as a director with an anti-Establishment bent and a fierce dedication to the truth in all its various forms, both beautiful and ugly. Žilnik’s films often take on an “ugly” and what some would even call an “unprofessional” esthetic because of this dedication and his insistence on purging his cinema of all superficial elements that would impede capturing the social reality he is after. This is perhaps one reason why Žilnik has remained on the margins of the history of world cinema, despite having won a Berlin Golden Bear and having his work shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In fact, he has always been comfortable there and expresses his affinity for the margins and those that reside on them in this interview.
When he returned to Yugoslavia in the late Seventies, Žilnik’s extensive television career, which continued through the Eighties and Nineties, further pushed him to the outer boundaries of the community of international cinema. As he says, many of his fellow filmmakers did not want to go into television because the productions were very modest–obviously not inclusive of the glamor and attention lavished on feature films throughout the world. Working on the small screen has often had the effect of marginalizing a director, as television has never enjoyed the cultural capital of feature-length moving pictures. Since capital in its various forms is a recurring subject of Žilnik’s filmic critiques, however, one can view his embracing of the medium of television as not simply a last resort he was forced into but also as a logical move that aids and abets his rhetorical strategies.
Some directors utilize the camera as a paintbrush, to decorate; Žilnik uses the camera as a scalpel, to peel back the layers of society in an attempt to analyze what lies beneath. This statement is true of all the films in his ever-expanding body of work and it is certainly true of his newest production Stara škola kapitalizma/Old School Capitalism, which was completed at the end of 2009. I met Žilnik in the lounge of the Hotel Moscow in the heart of Belgrade in March 2010, where we discussed his life’s work and being treated like a stray dog.
Cineaste: What is old school capitalism?
Zelimir Žilnik: When capitalism started being applied after [Slobodan] Milošević lost power in 2000. I thought the economy would recover. I was curious and patient for many years. I went to neighboring countries—Slovenia, Hungary, Germany, Austria—and I started filming. The first production that resulted was [the documentary short] Cosmo Girls (1999). My focus was on how women coped with the situation of transitioning from socialism to capitalism. They did not operate with fear because they did not go into the army and pass through the carnage of war.
So then I thought, “Let’s wait for capitalism to settle here in Serbia.” Slowly I started reading about unsuccessful privatization. At first I thought it must be the old sentiments of the workers who were yearning for socialist times when the state took care of their lives. We went into the factories where the workers were protesting, very low profile. Surprisingly, we discovered that many of the new owners were crooks and war profiteers. They were using brutal force against the workers to stop production and kick them out of the factories.
I discovered that the legality of the new ownership is in question. That is also the reason why Serbia is maybe the only country that did not return ownership to the old capitalists from before World War II. New laws recognized only state ownership instead of recognizing how workers had been self-investing in the growth of the factories. Everything was privatized and then given to the new capitalist buyers and most of those, as we can now see, had been either criminals or those who gained their wealth in Milošević’s system, when during the sanctions the state gave privileges to some functionaries. These new owners are aware that the legitimacy of their ownership is questionable. What is going on now in Serbia is very close to a class war.
We started making some documentaries in the factories in Zrenjanin [Serbia]. I then decided to make this film, Old School Capitalism, as a semifictional work.
Cineaste: Old School Capitalism opens with a demonstration organized by the Independent Workers Union of Serbia. Can you speak about the ideological predilections of this union and their significance to Serbian society?
Žilnik: In the Nineties all the workers were part of the so-called “official” union. Its organization and communication were very good, as well as its relationship with the state. This union was involved with many social issues. It was very effective. Also, this union was often used as a party tool to calm down workers’ protests.
In the final years of Titoism there were a lot of strikes and protests. Sometimes they had the support of the union but maybe half of these uprisings were self-organized by the workers. At that time the workers were not allowed to create their own privately-organized union. In the Nineties when Milošević allowed a multiparty system to develop, a few union organizations also developed.
After the fall of Milošević clashes began between the official union and these new ones. These clashes had always been utilized to weaken the entire workers movement. When I was in the factories doing documentaries I was surprised to learn that some of the workers were part of the official union and some were in the new independent union. When their protests were announced we had already been filming. This big rally occurred in Belgrade on April 29, 2009. It was organized by the old union because they were part of the socialist tradition and they were against the new government. They were protesting the growing unemployment rate. A lot of workers who were members of that union had been employed in huge state companies which, after being sold, completely collapsed. Half of their membership became unemployed.
I planned to film during the protest because I thought that there would be a lot of people on the streets. After about thirty minutes I saw that some of the old, sentimental communists came out. We created a scene between them and the heroes of my film, who I had brought from the factories in Zrenjanin.
Cineaste: Your film features a group of anarchists that ally with the workers against capitalist owners. Could you talk about the influence of anarchist thought in Serbia, past and present?
Žilnik: In the socialist era anarchism was treated as an anticommunist ideology. Anarchists had been influential in the time of the Russian Revolution. However, the communists eliminated them in the struggle for power.
The Yugoslav Communist Party, before 1948, was aligned with Stalinist ideology. The leaders of the party, Tito included, passed through the “Moscow school” in the late Thirties. After the war, however, the party was struggling against internal fractures. Many outstanding intellectuals, who had been open to anarchist ideas and also Trotskyism, had been eliminated.
My [first] film Rani radovi/Early Works (1969) was attacked by the ideological critics as adhering to anarchist approaches and values. They labeled it anticommunist because they said it was too open to anarchist ideas. At that time anarchism was anathema. Like someone in Rome being accused of anti-Christian tendencies.
In my youth intellectuals had been aware that party ideology was strongly against anarchism and Trotskyism because of old tensions and traditions. For me, one of the greatest surprises during production was when I heard there were new anarchist groups here. They had invited me to show my film Paradies, eine imperialistische tragikomodie/Paradise (An Imperialist Tragicomedy, 1976) at their organized debates on anarchism because it was a film about German anarchists and it had never been translated and screened in Serbia. I came with the film and found around thirty people who were very well-informed about this old ideological debate but also about everything happening in current times. They were even aware of something hidden and forgotten—that Yugoslav self-management somehow had silently embraced anarchist ideas. For example, the idea that the state should wither away and expire and that workers’ associations should organize society.
When shooting the protests I saw a group of intellectuals from the publication Republika—the older generation—analyzing the whole event. Beside them was a younger generation of anarchosyndicalists who were printing a monthly called Direktna akcija—excellent work, which analyzes the situation of capitalism in the whole region, not just in factories but also in educational institutions. When I saw their magazine I got in contact with them and proposed that they be in the movie. They said that they would have to have a meeting about it. My cinematographer Miša [Milošević] and I were in their office and they made us wait outside. Miša thought we should go out for coffee while we wait. But after ten minutes they came out and said, “OK, we’ll do it.”
Cineaste: In the film you include footage of U.S. Vice President Biden’s visit to Serbia. How and why did you structure this event into the body of the film?
Žilnik: The previous year we could see that our politicians were confused as to whether they should talk to the West or the East. The symbols of this confusion were the visits of [Russian Federation] President Medvedev and Vice President Biden. The propaganda for Russia appeared immediately when Medvedev’s visit was announced. A few months later when Biden’s visit was announced the Russians were completely forgotten and the American propaganda began.
Ratibor, one of the anarchists, told me that when Biden comes he would demonstrate by burning the American flag. I said, “Look, it’s not good if I come with a camera crew because then your act would not be authentic. It would be for the film.” So actually, I didn’t film that scene. I told him to have some of his friends shoot it. What we used in the film was their amateur footage. But it worked.
Cineaste: The first alliance between anarchists and workers does not go well. At the end of the film the anarchists try to build a second alliance with the workers, which ends in tragedy. What’s the viability of an alliance between anarchists and workers in reality in Serbia?
Žilnik: I have a feeling that this relatively unorganized mainstream population in this country is mostly afraid of unity and communication between intellectuals and workers. I remember during the Belgrade student demonstrations in 1968 we had the possibility to gather and to speak freely at the university. Then, the university was closed by the police and anyone who did not have a university ID card could not enter. The student action to inform workers about what was going on in the university was the most heavily-suppressed by the police.
The anarchists in my film were kept in prison for six months without charges. Not for their actions in my film but for this relatively small protest in front of the Greek embassy, which they did after we finished the film. They were eventually accused of international terrorism—a charge that wasn’t even leveled during the wars.
For me, the tragic ending of the film is a symbol of the actual hopes for any radical change and political engagement.
Cineaste: A documentary approach to content and form has been your stock in trade since the beginning of your career. Why this method?
Žilnik: I use it as a short cut to the final product. In this poor country where we don’t have a film market, with the financial investment necessary to mount a feature film with professional actors, it would take around three years. You would then have to communicate with politicians or those in control of the budgets. I understood that with a topic such as this one, I would never get those resources.
Taking this short cut means taking real events as ready-made pieces, which I incorporate into the film, then using the language of fiction in those parts where antagonists are needed. You cannot ask someone who is taking part in the protests to expose all the weaknesses of their position and their family problems, which are caused by the poverty they find themselves in. So you use it to create dramatic conflict.
With modest productions such as this one we do not engage professional actors. The main reason is because it is not so easy to create authenticity when you combine professional actors, whose language is stiffer, with documentary content. We find nonprofessionals but we cast very carefully, judging who has talent for acting.
The workers who were still engaged in protests and going through court procedures asked us to use the documentary portions of them in the film and not to ask them to step out of real life, because it could harm their legal cases. So all of the actors we used had already passed through the legal struggles a year or so before. They knew the experiences and they felt very comfortable reenacting them.
The actors do not learn the lines by heart. I read to them what they have to do and then we do a small rehearsal before going into the scene. So when you ask me about the method it is a combining of the fiction film with actual events.
Cineaste: What are the limitations of this method?
Žilnik: The limitations are huge, especially when you have a large group of people. First you have technical limitations. How do you light the whole scene? In Old School Capitalism we often had twenty or thirty people in front of the camera. So you have to try to do that as much as possible during daylight.
Another limitation is how to articulate a group of people quarreling. We used two cameras in most of the situations, sometimes three. I had one camera in my hands, Miša had another, and an assistant had the third. It would be very instructive for you to see the rough material.
I have a camera and I am also taking part in the quarrel. In the editing stage we just cut out my voice. You have to be very concentrated in this type of filmmaking but it is also great fun. When we finished shooting I asked Miša how many days he spent coming to the factories and small towns we were in. He asked his secretary, “How many days was I away from the office?” She said, “Eleven.” So this relatively complicated film was shot in eleven days!
Cineaste: You have been working with your cinematographer Miša Milošević since 1988. He has shot just about all of your films since then. Describe your working relationship.
Žilnik: I met Miša when he asked me to be on the jury of the Alternative Film/Video Festival in Belgrade, which he is the director of. Around that time I got an invitation to make a 35mm feature but in a very restricted time frame. In May they asked me if it could be finished for the Pula Film Festival in June. I first asked some cinematographers whom I worked with before and they said it was impossible. I then asked Miša and we ended up making Tako se kalio čelik/The Way Steel Was Tempered (1988). That was the first film we made together. We shot it in thirty days and edited it in ten.
Miša believes that the technique should not restrict the work. He is aware of the masterpieces of world cinematography, some of them being made with very simple technical means. So, on one hand, he is very precise and very concentrated. On the other hand, he does not bring any tension to the process. I tell him to think of films shot without a tripod. We have to be free, because in one day we have to finish thirty to thirty-five shots. Then we start talking about old films we love, Shadows (1959, John Cassavetes), Hallelujah the Hills (1963, Adolfas Mekas), and we laugh and joke. Miša says, “But don’t forget, Andy Warhol never touched the camera!”
What’s fascinating is that Miša managed to find a way to transfer films himself on 35mm. He has done that for maybe six or seven of our films. He did Old School Capitalism in his home! We went to a laboratory in Hungary to see how they do it, because they asked for 20,000 Euros just for the transferring. Miša said, “I think they’re tricking us.” They had an excellent screen, so we bought one for 3,000 Euros. He also bought a small 35mm camera that had frame stability. He and his son then made a computer program to process video units and fields, dividing the whole film into 300,000 frames. The computer does it frame by frame. So we buy three kilometers of negative—you just call Kodak and they send it to you. Then for seven days and seven nights, frame by frame, he completed the film. We develop it only in the Hungarian laboratory and the film is finished.
Cineaste: Old School Capitalism screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival. What are your plans for the film in 2010?
Žilnik: The film had a very successful premiere in Slovenia and went into distribution there. It was so successful that an edition of the Ljubljana-based film magazine Kino! was completely dedicated to it.
We received a lot of invitations to other international festivals: the goEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden [Germany], the Crossing Europe Film Festival in Linz [Austria]. After that we have invitations from Poland, Australia, Italy and also from Rooftop Films in New York City.
Cineaste: Your debut feature film Early Works won the Berlin Golden Bear. What was it like to start your career off with such a success?
Žilnik: It looks like a success now but it was much more troubled in those years. The film was shot in the autumn of 1968 and was a direct reflection of the questions and doubts developing in the socialist world after the [June 1968] student demonstrations in Belgrade and the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August that same year.
At the time I was twenty-six years old and had finished my law studies [at the Faculty of Law in Novi Sad, Serbia] and began studying philosophy in [the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of] Belgrade. I remember the world we were living in had been very much shaken. I was opposed to the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, so, partly feeling that the student opposition was the opening of hope, we filmed Early Works in October, putting all the worries we had in mind into the film.
I feel the film is like a ballad about the world we lived in during our youth. I remember that while filming we were constantly listening to “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkins. The film was released in February 1969 all over Yugoslavia. It was discussed a great deal in the press and more than half of the articles were in support of the film. Later that year a prosecutor in Belgrade brought charges against the film and a case was opened. I defended the film in court and the judge allowed it to continue to be shown. It was sent to the Berlin Film Festival. The leaders of the student protest in Germany were on the jury that gave the Youth Award to the film.
After it won the Golden Bear there was a lot of political pressure and unpleasant reactions from mainstream colleagues in Yugoslav cinema. That was the first film in the history of Yugoslavia to win the top prize at a big international festival. A lot of older colleagues, especially those who had been making partisan war-film spectacles, started accusing the film of being amateurish. Party debates were organized that summer where the film was denounced as an anarchic-liberal piece. I was a member of the Communist League and I was expelled from the party. So this whole festival experience seemed to be as if I was treated like a god but in reality I was as despised as a stray dog.
Cineaste: Because of this political pressure you were not able to direct another feature film in Yugoslavia and you left to live and work in Germany. How would you characterize this stage of your career?
Žilnik: After the political backlash against what was called the Yugoslav “Black Wave” in cinema there was no space to work. Our social security cards were even taken as a result of the films we made. I thought things were turning very serious and felt it wise to take advantage of the fact that Yugoslavia was an open country and Yugoslavs did not need visas. We had a large amount of guest workers going to Germany because of an official treaty between our countries. I knew that since my films had been awarded in Germany and shown on television, the atmosphere would be better for me there. So my strategy was to concentrate on making films about people from Yugoslavia under new and sometimes difficult circumstances in Germany, for example not knowing the language and having trouble adjusting to the culture.
German film production was supported very well by the state. I started making short films, which were commercially viable because at that time cinemas always showed a short before the feature. Altogether I made seven pieces. The president of the German filmmakers association was the director Alexander Kluge, whom I knew very well. He asked him to join the organization, which I did.
One day Kluge said to me, “Želimir, come and help me. We’re applying these excellent film laws from Yugoslavia.” I couldn’t tell him that in Yugoslavia everything around film had been frozen! So he asked me to translate some of the Yugoslav self-management working methods. According to our practices, they made something like a filmmakers’ cooperative where all the outstanding young German directors used to work, including Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Ula Stöckl, Syberberg, Fassbinder, Herzog, and others. I edited a few of my short films in that cooperative and also my feature film Paradise, An Imperialist Tragicomedy.
For me it was a tremendous relief coming after all those campaigns aimed at me in Yugoslavia. The tragedy, however, was that after only a few years they had a hysterical atmosphere in Germany themselves. German leftists in 1975 and 1976 started terrorist attacks, killing state functionaries. The situation in the culture completely changed. In those months I had the premiere of my film Paradise, whose story was somehow connected with the first appearance of anarchy and terrorism two years before.
Some film critics and other friends warned me that the film could cause trouble. I left Germany that year. However, I must say that my experiences in Germany taught me a lot of things; first of all, how to organize independent production; how to finance and budget without the state; and, most importantly, the process of research—learning before filming. This helped me tremendously in the next decade, which for me was the most productive decade: the Eighties, in which I made about fifteen feature films and many documentaries.
Cineaste: When you returned to Yugoslavia you worked almost entirely in television. What was this new medium like for you?
Žilnik: When I came back to Yugoslavia the doors of film production houses were still closed for those filmmakers marked as part of the “Black Wave.” So I went to television, which at that time was the official medium of the state. They didn’t take many foreign programs in those days and television was completely organized and dedicated for production. Each studio used to have its own laboratory, dozens of cameras, good lighting equipment, and a need for new programs.
The biggest challenge for me was to get my head around the idea that I, who had been prevented from showing my work to the public, now had a tool with which I could enter hundreds of thousands of homes. Each Monday at 8:00 p.m. a new television film was broadcast all over the country. That makes fifty-two television films. I worked for TV Novi Sad, TV Belgrade, and TV Ljubljana. A lot of colleagues who had access to cinema production didn’t want to go into television because the productions were more modest.
Cineaste: In 1994 you directed a television documentary with an interesting point of departure, titled Tito po drugi put medju Srbima/Tito among the Serbs a Second Time. What inspired you to come up with the idea for this piece?
Žilnik: At that time the atmosphere was even stranger than the one in 1972. The system of values was altered. Tolerance was exchanged for hatred and used as a tool for waging war. History was being rewritten in many ways. Some of the antifascist engagements were swept out of the collective memory. It was officially proclaimed that Titoism should be forgotten. At that moment his name was taboo. I didn’t have any complexes about entering that debate because I lived to see the bright side and the dark side of Titoism.
When Miša and I went to talk to actors that used to play the role of Tito, they said they had to because the police asked them to do it. They were scared in this new environment. They said there was no way they would go out in the streets dressed as Tito. Then we heard about a guy on student radio who impersonated Tito. I listened to him and heard that he was excellent. We asked him if he would play the role of Tito. He agreed and we took him out on the streets in a costume that we got from Avala Film [studio], with fears that he could be beaten.
After ten minutes of walking, dozens of people came to talk to him. I said, “Look, you guys know this is not Tito.” They said, “Yeah, we know, but we never had the opportunity to talk to him. We want to express our joy that he’s back, because he was better than the one in power now.”
For us it was not a film, it was a happening. I gave instructions about the topics our actor [Dragoljub S. Ljubičić] should raise but I did not influence any of his dialog. I did not influence any of the people walking by. The crowd was so big that my main job was to beg the people to let him [Ljubičić] talk to them one at a time.
When we went down by the railway station people came with instruments and started singing songs about Tito and dancing around him. The traffic was disrupted, so two policemen came and arrested me and Miša. They took our camera. I saw tears forming in Miša’s eyes because we thought we lost the material we had shot.
After fifteen minutes the actor in Tito uniform stepped into the police station and in a very serious voice said, “I did not finish my interview! Where are you keeping my crew?” The two officers ran to our cell shouting, “Tito is nervous! He wants to finish the interview! Go!” We said, “Well, give us our camera.” They saluted and said, “Marshal Tito, we just wanted to take them away because we thought they were provoking you.” So we left!
Cineaste: Later that year you shot a feature film titled Dupe od mramora (Marble Ass, 1994), which dealt with gay subculture in Belgrade. How did people react to this film in Serbia?
Žilnik: I was researching how I should make a film about young people coming back from the war. I waited at the train station to talk to some of them and take some notes. A woman asked me, “Old man, do you want to go for a ride?” I said, “Please, leave me alone.” She said, “Oh Želimir, are you playing with me? I know you’re very open for sexual experiences.” I said, “How do you know me?” She said, “I’m Vera.” At that moment I recognized that it was an actor who took part in a scene with a group of gay people in my film Lijepe žene prolaze kroz grad/Pretty Women Passing Through the City (1985).
It was a small role but I remembered he was very intelligent, nice, and quite talented. I said, “Vera, what’s going on? Why are you dressed as a woman?” He said, “You know that I’m gay. Actually, I’m a transvestite. I never dared to come out openly as a girl but now that Belgrade is in such a strange situation, I feel I’m one of the most ordinary, normal people in the city.” I asked him, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m earning as a prostitute.” I didn’t believe him. I didn’t know that that scene existed. He said, “Come with me.” He brought me to a street near the train station and there were about ten other transvestites. They told me about all the desperate people coming back from the war, including people that were even let out of jail to join the army. Some were homosexuals.
I was surprised about all this and I asked if they would let me and Miša observe them at work to prove they were not lying. They brought us to an attic where they took customers. At that time the houses and roofs in many cities were completely torn apart, like a corpse—the same situation with many personalities and the souls of the people. We stayed for a few hours, very frightened when the youngsters in uniform with weapons came, telling stories about the atrocities they had seen. Some of those boys dressed as women to practice some of the cruel behavior they had witnessed. We wanted to film a story around these experiences. They told us, “It’s dangerous. Write a screenplay where we can be very flamboyant divas instead, and then we’ll act!”
We shot it on Beta with a small budget. We thought it would be shown low profile on cassettes. Then, the Ministry of Culture declared that each domestic feature film production could have access to the Sava [Convention] Center for a screening. In those years only two or three domestic films were produced.
We showed Marble Ass there. The Sava Center was filled to capacity with 4,000 people, and it was a big scandal. When the projection was finished, half of the audience was applauding and the other half was shouting, “Lies! That doesn’t exist in Serbia!” They started throwing apples and eggs at us. I went on stage with the crew, took a microphone and said, “I invite all gays, lesbians and prostitutes here to come up on stage and join us to greet the public!” There was a stampede of 400 people running up to the stage. That changed the atmosphere completely. I knew that a lot of the people who ran to the stage were not gay—they just came to show solidarity. They all started shouting and dancing and having fun. The television stations present to cover the event then couldn’t claim that the film was false. After a few days the actors in the film became stars in the press.
Marble Ass went to the Berlinale and won a Teddy Award. After that, the film went all over the world. It was a greater success than Early Works in terms of publicity, speaking engagements for myself and so on.
Cineaste: Beginning in 2003 you made a trilogy of films about a young Romani man named Kenedi (Kenedi se vraća kući/Kenedi Goes Back Home , Gde je Kenedi bio dve godine/Kenedi, Lost and Found , and Kenedi se ženi/Kenedi is Getting Married ). How did you remain true to representing Roma culture responsibly and not stereotypically?
Žilnik: I was surprised to learn at that time, after the war, that many families were being sent back from Western Europe. Some of these were Roma families and their children grew up in the German educational system as great students. A friend told me that there were many children in Novi Sad that needed help learning how to translate their work from German. I went to meet the kids and was astonished to see Romani people who did not conform to any of the prejudices we have been bombarded with in films, such as that they’re lazy, thieves, drunks, always ready to sing for spare change, and more. These filmic representations are a cruel lie, mostly produced because of our shame about how we keep those people deprived of a normal life.
We started making short documentaries because I wanted to raise a debate about how to help the kids. The next step was to make a fiction film about the difficulties Roma from Germany had in being deported because of the new German laws about permanent residents.
Cineaste: You teach in a number of international video workshops that strive to promote intercultural dialog. What sort of lessons and values do you try to instill in your students?
Žilnik: My main effort is to encourage young people to use new technology not in the pretentions of making big commercial films but to somehow try to use it as a tool for capturing the passing of life around them. Moving images today are the main source of recent history, the source of our knowledge about past times—more reliable than the written word.
I try to relax my students from all those proclamations of film academies about how they should compete with Hollywood. It’s exactly the same as if you said to each young girl that if you don’t look like Angelina Jolie then you’re not worthy of having a boyfriend.
Cineaste: Your career spans over four decades and more than forty films. What sort of lessons have you yourself learned in that time?
Žilnik: I simply learned that in the Balkans, people on the margins are actually the only part of society, which somehow takes care of continuing on with normality in life.
Greg DeCuir, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Belgrade.
- Svetozar Udovički (ed.). Neoplanta film: dokumentacija/documentation (Novi Sad: 1971), p. 28.
- Ibid., p. 29.
- Ibid., pp. 31-32.
- Vladimir Jovičić. “’Crni val’ u našem filmu/The Black Wave in Our Cinema” Borba Reflektor (August 3, 1969).