“The naïveté of the disenfranchised”

Želimir Žilnik interviewed by Boris Nelepo

You have, with your own two hands, built a house turned into a kind of film studio, which has also been featured in some of your movies such as Kenedi se ženi [Kenedi is getting married] and Destinacija_Serbistan [Logbook_Serbistan]

I started building that house when I had already made many films. I didn’t have a house at the time, so I figured building one and making a film had a lot in common. Defining the purpose is like picking your genre. Raising money. Finding collaborators. Coordinating work is as necessary for building a house as it is for producing feature films. The process, in fact, is even easier. It is completely ingrained in our genes: people have been doing that for thousands of years. Somehow, though, a film is a greater and riskier adventure. We built it from recycled materials. The bricks and beams were 100-200 years old. That was like working on a low-budget film. When we speak about choosing a protagonist in a documentary or fiction film, we speak about choosing a person who lives and speaks in front of the camera in your stead. To make that choice, it is necessary to have intuition, patience, and luck (probably the same as in mining for gold). If you find non-professional first-timers and accept their talent and magnetism, the next step is for them to receive a completely impossible task from you: to create a new piece of authentic life in front of the camera and crew, with emotions and relationships. I cannot rely on experience and technical tricks because they don’t have them. They perform only with their hearts, their motivation to show that which is smouldering in humans: self-confidence – I’ll show you who I am! The screen is a heated space, and it can burst into flames. If I look at the names of around 20 of the most convincing roles in different films, half of them are excellent and well-known actors with long careers. The other half are non-professionals with great talent.

Let’s keep talking about the material dimension of your movies. Almost all your characters are attached to things, most of which belonged to their fathers: think of the bike in Stara mašina [Oldtimer], the police uniform in Crno i belo [Black and White], or the Austro‐Hungarian army uniform in Kud plovi ovaj brod [Wanderlust]. Here we see something of a physicality of History, its tangible burden.

The terms instability, discontinuity, ethnic and other confusions are used to describe the Balkans. This is not completely unfounded. In Yugoslavia, since I got into filmmaking, there have been at least five shifts in cultural politics and “climates.” When my genera- tion started out it was a time of protests, but also of hope. Rani radovi [Early Works] was shot in the autumn of 1968 while the drama of state socialism flowed, eliminating Dubcek’s attempt at “socialism with a human face” with a tank offensive in Prague. That was a time of intense discussion in half the countries on the face of the earth about whether it was possible to establish socialism, according to Marx’s principles, before industrialization with a small proletariat. In the 70s I was a gastarbeiter [guest worker] in Germany. In the 80s we “entered reforms”. I made a few sagas for TV Novi Sad and TV Belgrade with my crew. At the same time, seismic shifts toward the break-up of socialism and the state were first felt. We responded to that trend with the futuristic piece Lijepe žene prolaze kroz grad [Pretty Women walking through the City], which was shot in the summer of 1985. The story is about Belgrade in the year 2041, after ethnic wars, which would actually happen in the 90s. When the film was shown in Pula they stoned me with the same compliments that I got at the beginning of my career: what’s wrong with you, man? What a sick imagination! To return to reality, we did a comedy, Tako se kalio čelik [The Way Steel was tempered], about the erosion of shock working, in the local factory Pobeda. At the same time, right in front of our noses, a far more dangerous scenario began to play out: in Novi Sad, in the summer of 1988, the so-called anti-bureaucratic revolution was set in motion. National-socialist rhetoric, slogans, and threats of a coup from some 10,000 participants brought in by state buses and trucks. This “people’s event” was designed by Milošević’s party-police apparatus. Likewise, we shot a feature-length piece about that, called Stara mašina. This was a time when we experienced the road movie subgenre. Maybe we can refer to it as a “movie made by picking up events and participants along the road”. The 90s have already been the stage for fiery rhetoric and heated automatic firearms. People, town houses, growing beyond recognition. This was witnessed in the films Marble Ass and Kud plovi ovaj brod. At the beginning of the 21st century, we did an inventory of the post-war and refugee trauma and transition: Tvrđava Evropa [Fortress Europe], the Kenedi trilogy, Stara škola kapitalizma [The Old School of Capitalism], Jedna Žena – Jedan Vek [One Woman – One Century], Destinacija_Serbistan.

The Stara mašina characters come to the British Embassy to ask for a job to help them move to Great Britain. They are, of course, turned away. If I had to find a defining feature for your characters en masse, I’d say they all possess a certain naïveté – “the naïveté of the disenfranchised”, so to speak. It is precisely this naïveté that the radicalism of Crni film [Black Film], in which you try to find some lodgings for the homeless, underwrites.

It’s interesting that you refer to this as “naïveté” but it is also very true. Simple questions sometimes articulate an issue in a more precise way than twisted formulations and phrases. We all know how the masters tend to talk about their hired help: they understand them, help them, and buy their children candy. They would often say, “She is like a sister to us.” But when this “family member” needs real help and the masters can afford to help them, their actions might get noticed by other “masters”. This is when the class barrier appears unexpectedly, creating distance. The master is busy. That’s what the scene is about at the British embassy. Let’s take a look at how the immigrants speak about their issues, about the countries they come from and about the hope they seek in Western Europe in Destinacija_Serbistan. It is naive and they speak in simple ways, but they express it more precisely than some foreign affairs ministers from Africa or European countries would.

It has come to matter a great deal to me how your characters perceive the movies as gestures of solidarity, support, and comfort. In a crowded auditorium of a Berlin cinema, Arsenal, Pirika looks at herself as a child or Kenedi treasures the videotape of his family gathering and asks you to send his relatives a copy of your film.

The scenes you mentioned illustrate very well what I am thinking about when answering the question: “For whom do you make movies?“. The answer is, for the public whose opinions we cling to. They are the participants, members of the team. If they like the movie, I know it will find its way to festivals and television. Basically, this is the principle according to which we, along with the participants, arrange our methods. We would have a conversation or remember the past events of a protagonist’s life by looking for photographs, video footage, or movie scenes – if they have participated. Next to the titles you just mentioned, we had this in the movie Jedna Žena – Jedan Vek. Then, in the Kenedi trilogy and in the TV series Vruće plate [Hot Paychecks]. That way, we are suggesting that every human being’s destiny is worthy of respect.