OF ALL WHO DON’T EXIST
Most of the time, Želimir Žilnik tells stories of people on the edge of non-existence: communist Yugoslavia would not officially recognize its citizens could be out of work (Nezaposleni Ljudi [The Unemployed]), neglected by their parents (Pioniri Maleni mi smo Vojska Prava, svakog Dana ničemo ko Zelena Trava [Little Pioneers]), or homeless (Crini Film [Black Film]). The unassailable bastion of Europe and a Schengen passport as everybody’s pipedream constitute the themes of the Kenedi as well as the Immigrant trilogies (the latter consists of Tvrđava Evropa [Fortress Europe], Evropa preko Plota [Europe Next Door], and Destinacija_Serbistan [Logbook_Serbistan]). It is perhaps in the restless gypsy Kenedi, who feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere, that Žilnik has found his archetypal hero willing to stand up for the people he has been supporting for decades. Film critic Jurij Meden goes so far as to call Kenedi the director’s alter ago, while celebrating this particular cycle as Žilnik’s most personal work.
In the major masterpiece of his most recent period, Stara Škola Kapitalizma [The Old School of Capitalism] (2009), the filmmaker orchestrates several complex scenes populated by a lot of characters caught up in heated arguments. Steering their improvised political discussion, Žilnik films it with three cameras simultaneously in a testament to his democratic method. Fuelled by doubt, his films allow antagonists to talk it over or even fight it out, and refrain from positing capital-T Truths or offering ready-made solutions. In Stara Škola, elderly communists rally behind their shared regrets of having squandered Tito’s legacy; Pirika na Filmu [Pirika on Film] (2013) ends with a conversation with former Yugoslavians and Soviet citizens, who try to explain how they have found a place for themselves in a changed world.
Pirika na Filmu proves most conclusively the amount of caution and tact with which Žilnik treats his characters. It’s no coincidence that he often goes back to the precarious lives of people only tangentially involved in his previous productions. For instance, the director had first met street urchin Pirika Capko when he was shooting Pioniri (1968). Then he cast her in Rani Radovi [Early Works] (1969) as the sister of the main character, Yugoslava. Forty-five years later, he bumped into her on the street and made an entire film about her. A similar fate awaited Vjeran Miladinović, who played the incomparable Merlin in Marble Ass (1995) after he had had a little part in Lijepe Žene prolaze kroz Grad [Pretty Women walking through the City] (1986).
For Žilnik, film is a genuinely democratic medium endowing with unprecedented meaning those whose very existence is thrown into question by any power structure. This endowment is a direct result of finding consolation in recorded images. In a crowded auditorium of a Berlin cinema, Arsenal, Pirika looks at herself as a child; Kenedi treasures the videotape of his family gathering and asks Žilnik to send his relatives a copy of Kenedi se vraća Kući [Kenedi goes back Home] (2003). There is a rare breed of filmmakers who, year in and year out, film after film, keep building a historical narrative as they create, invent, or outright make up a cinematic country of their own. Peter von Bagh did it for Finland, Lav Diaz for the Philippines. Žilnik was the first to chronicle the disintegration of Yugoslavia when he filmed a unique portrait of his country. Bolest i Ozdravljenje Bude Brakusa [Illness and Recovery of Buda Brakus], Prvo Tromesečje Pavla Hromiša [The First Trimester of Pavle Hromiš], Komedija i Tragedija Bore Joksimovića [The Comedy and Tragedy of Bora Joksimović]: he named a number of his films after their main characters, as though compiling a pantheon of his own, a sanctuary of people who truly matter. Though Yugoslavia has disappeared from the world map, it will never the less endure, for near these invisible men, who have absorbed its history into their biographies and who feel lost every time they have to face the system, there is always a man with a camera. Želimir Žilnik, 72, lawyer, still making films.
(Boris Nelepo collaborates in the programming of the Želimir Žilnik retrospective)