Želimir Žilnik: Film as a Handshake

The great Serbian director, subject of a massive retrospective in Lisbon, asks: "Film - Weapon or Shit?"
Boris Nelepo

The following is an introduction to the first complete international retrospective of Serbian director Želimir Žilnik, opening at Doclisboa Film Festival October 22, 2015. The series is curated by Boris Nelepo and organized in collaboration with the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

In early March of 1971, young film director Želimir Žilnik, winner of the Berlin Golden Bear for his debut Early Works, reads from the stage a manifesto entitled "This Festival Is a Cemetery," on the opening night of his short Black Film. He talks about the worthlessness of abstract humanism, exploitation of poverty, alleged bravery, and the “quasi-involved,” socially conscious filmmaking which just represents “the ruling fashion of bourgeois cinema.” "We refuse to regard this sudden concern of the film caste with the people as anything other than а new kind of bluff", Žilnik states. Black Film ends with a question: “FILM – WEAPON OR SHIT?”

This trenchant turn of phrase has only gained in acuity some forty-odd years later. A veritable delay-action bomb, Black Film once set off a shockwave which is now rolling in on us. The auteur cinema of today, more than ever, looks like a self-sustaining capitalist machine as international festivals grow in number, each offering financial support for aspiring filmmakers. Hence the overproduction of movies—especially "socially conscious" ones, especially documentaries—that no one ends up seeing outside that specialty market. As audiences dwindle so does the hypothetical influence of cinema over the real world, while the figure of the artist—one who finds more and more miserable people to suffer on screen with increasing cinematic eloquence—still begs for a critical reevaluation. What is the artist of today preoccupied with? Is there such a thing nowadays as political filmmaking? How is the world defined by the steady flow of movies playing the festival circuit, yet barely venturing beyond the small ghetto? These questions are seldom asked, for they undermine the status quo.

If the festival is a cemetery, Black Film is Žilnik's grave as a director. Does it mean, though, that the manifesto marked the point where he strayed from his creative path? Not at all. Instead, he took stock of his own position in the world, and kept on doing what he had been doing, all illusions now discarded. What he stuck to, however, were the principles laid out in the manifesto. This is a filmmaker who had to reinvent himself and his method continuously and sometimes painfully, resisting along the way the temptations of compromise and facing head-on the many social, economical, and political limitations of his time. Žilnik's oeuvre is easy to break down into time periods, each inextricably linked to the country whose history he has chronicled.

Žilnik #1 is a young intellectual, cinephile, communist, and author of a modernist masterpiece Early Works. We could've found out more about him if his second feature, Freedom or Cartoons, hadn't been so violently scrapped by the government. Once the Yugoslav Black Wave is suppressed, to West Germany comes waltzing in Žilnik #2, welcomed there as a political refugee and festival pet. However, instead of cashing in his symbolic capital and creating a persecuted dissident persona, he chooses to put the new environment under his trademark microscope of irony, provocation, and fervor, focusing especially on the activities of RAF. The democratic society is quick to react with deportation and censorship. Žilnik #3 carves out a niche for himself on TV in the 1980s, suddenly gaining artistic freedom and blazing the trail for docudrama, the genre he's most comfortable with to this day. Reaching now a much broader audience afforded by the medium, he accepts the formal challenge of having to produce palatable formulations. This period is his most prolific, and yet least studied: from 1977 to 1990, he makes 11 TV movies, two features, a mini-series, and a number of shorts.

However, while Žilnik was busy encompassing the early-80s life in Yugoslavia in his panoramic vision, the imminent danger loomed large over Titoland until the tragedy finally erupted in the early 90s. The protagonist of Oldtimer (1989) prophesies, "The war has not started yet, but it is better to be prepared." It was precisely TV that allowed Žilnik to package his gut reactions to political upheaval into new movies with no time wasted. His ethnographic melodrama Brooklyn—Gusinje (1988), commissioned by Belgrade TV, is set in a small village in Montenegro at the Yugoslav-Albanian border. Concurrent with the upswing of anti-Albanian sentiment among the Serbs, it was supposed to mitigate the growing hatred. In Oldtimer, Žilnik captures Milošević's rise to power while reinventing the road movie genre so that any movement in it henceforth equals deterioration and falsehood, pairing fellow travelers at random and splitting them up just as arbitrarily. Made possible only in a land on the brink of disintegration, the genre will be revisited ten years later in Wanderlust.

In 1992, already in a war-torn country, Želimir Žilnik resigned from Novi Sad TV. With filmmaking severely underfunded, Žilnik, who had been experimenting with new formats since the 80s, became one of the first directors in the world to give up on 16 and 35 mm. In the 90s he transitions to video; in the 2000s, goes digital. His creative partnership with cameraman Miodrag Milošević dates all the way back to the 80s, when they collaborated on The Way Steel Was Tempered (1988). They still make ultra-low-budget films together, sometimes for a couple of thousand Euros apiece. 

French director and film critic Jean-Claude Biette suggested a peculiar hierarchy of filmmakers, topped with the cinéaste—a category of directors whose output is not just consistently good, but also coheres into an intelligible whole. Žilnik certainly belongs on that rung, for the true scope of his project is only appreciable once you've seen several of his movies, each subsequent one shedding a new light on its predecessors.

The year is 2015. Hungary builds a barbed-wire fence along its Serbian border to keep the unwelcome strangers away from Fortress Europe. What contemporary movies are truly related to what's going on in the world? Earlier this year, Žilnik made LogBook_Serbistan about immigrants and refugees from Syria and Africa. Instead of waiting for an invitation to a prestigious festival, he makes arrangements to have it play on TV as soon as it's finished, in order to prevent the spreading of right-wing rhetoric. Then he tours immigration centers across the country, practicing exactly what he preached in that far-off manifesto.

Žilnik is a key figure of cinematic resistance which comes in all shapes and sizes. His resistance may be intellectual, since he remains a leftist artist without ever resorting to dogmatism, or aesthetic (he violently opposes the accepted notions of "quality filmmaking"), or simply a matter of principle that forbids him from seeking government funding. In an at least partial exoneration of the compromised "Marxist artist" trope, Žilnik always puts his money where his mouth is. A chronicler cum documentarian cum activist, he harbors few fantasies about the current political climate, which might tilt him, on occasion, toward skepticism and pessimism. However, as his faith in a just system, whether communist or liberal, wanes, a new faith—and a new interest—in the individual increases in power. Žilnik is as much a humanist (the word has by now lost most of its luster through overuse) as a comedian fortifying his zest for life with an inimitable sense of humor.

Once Paul Celan wrote in a letter: "I see no difference between a handshake and a poem." What is a handshake, and is it possible to make a film that could be also a handshake? This is the simplest act of human solidarity, to which LogBook_Serbistan, as well as Žilnik's entire directorial project, stand as monuments. 

Thanks to Olaf Möller and Barbara Wurm

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