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An Interview with Žilnik

The following interview with Želimir Žilnik was requested on behalf of editor Klaus Behnken in order to be published in the book kurz und klein [short and sweet] for the 50th anniversary of the International Short Film Festivals Oberhausen, Germany in 2004, but in the end it was not published. The interview was termed as “not suitable” for the book, and marks a clear act of direct and pure censorship in 2004.

Marina Gržinić :

This interview was recorded in October in 2003 in Kassel, when Žilnik, Steyerl and Gržinić took part in the symposium with presentations and events that were all part of the exhibition In the Gorges of the Balkans, curated by René Block, for Kassel’s Kunsthalle Fredericianum.

Želimir Žilnik was invited to show his latest film Kennedy returns home (2003), a documentary masterpiece, with an actually frightening political message about the ways in which European states, after the end of the wars in the territory of ex- Yugoslavia, are solving the question of refugees taken in by the thousands during the war.

Žilnik’s Kennedy returns home is a documentary about the specific and disastrous condition of Roma families after the end of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Roma people and their families were allowed to come as refugees to Germany approximately a decade ago, as part of a humanitarian action when the war in ex-Yugoslavia first began. They have been living in Germany since then, first as refugees, afterwards having the possibility of getting jobs; their children were born there and they acquired a sense of a normal life. Roma children learned perfect German and were good pupils and students in German schools, and at the universities.

At the beginning of 2003, Želimir Žilnik suddenly became acquainted, by word of mouth, with the fact that in Novi Sad in the Roma villages around the city, hundreds of Roma families with children speaking only German could be found.

During 2002 and 2003, without any public debate, hundreds of Roma with their families were silently and secretly, so to speak, deported from Germany back to Serbia overnight. German police forces and special officials came during the night and asked these families to take just the most essential items and were immediately brought to the airport afterwards and sent back to Serbia. Everything had to be left behind in Germany. In Serbia these families are facing great tragedy, as the younger family members have no clue about any other language than German, but also their entire life patterns and values were established in Germany.  Until now no critical and massive reactions have taken place in public, neither in Germany nor in Serbia, reactions toward this clear act of violation of basic human rights.

Žilnik did a brilliant documentary that is a sharp and deadly dagger to the head of the democratic processes and fight for civil society’s rights in Germany and Serbia.

At the Kassel symposium, I had the chance to listen to an excellent discussion about the film between Žilnik and Steyerl. Hito Steyerl’s film work is also politically engaged and activistically passionate within the medium of documentary film. Steyerl’s work also deals with traumatic and disturbing topics within Germany and the general European reality, as her film projects are about the condition of life and history, the present, past and future of minorities.

Although I was asked to make the interview with Žilnik by myself, after listening to the well-structured talk and insights of perception of how the political and theoretical, social and visual meet in the space of the documentary film genre today, I decided that this interview with Želimir Žilnik, one of the most important film directors from ex-Yugoslavia today, could only be done as a collaborative talk with the three of us together.

Hito Steyerl :

In his work which now spans over more than 3 decades Želimir Žilnik has not only proven to be a critic of real existing socialism, as long as it existed, but he has also been a critic of real existing democracy and its totalitarian potentials and aspects. After becoming celebrated in the late sixties with films criticizing the so-called red bourgeoisie in Tito’s Yugoslavia and being placed under strong political pressure as a result, he moved to Germany. Instead of behaving like a thankful dissident and praising the virtues of democracy, he quickly found out that German democracy too could very swiftly transform itself into a police state. This shift happened with the terrorism hysteria of 1977, when Žilnik was expelled from Germany after having made a series of films about the phenomena of terrorism.

After making a series of very successful films in the 1990s in Serbia, and exploring the new frontiers of Europe in his semi-documentary Fortress Europe, Žilnik, with his newest film Kennedy returns home, once again probes the democratic cruelties of an emerging Schengen state, eager to get rid of refugees. This film deals with the fate of Roma people who, after spending as long as 12 years in Germany, have been deported back to Serbia, a place which they are no longer familiar with, and where anti-Roma resentment keeps them from accessing even the most basic of facilities.

Žilnik’s work also forms an opposition to popular films like Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies, which shows the Roma people as poor but happy, with a great and entertaining culture. None of these stereotypes are present within Žilnik’s work, where the most common topic among the deported is not music and love, but prices, wages, and legal fees given to bureaucratic structures in order to help them to uphold their basic rights. But it is not only the content, but also the refined semi-fictional form of this film, which offers a stark contrast to the humanitarian and voyeuristic politics of visibility which govern interventionist policies as well as the aesthetics of a civil society which deports Roma people on the one hand and portrays them as helpless and pitiful victims on the other.

Žilnik’s film Kennedy returns home shows the co-production of the figure of the “Gypsy” by two complementary forces, namely the Western European biopolitical bureaucracy and the local, in this case Serbian, elites — both depict and give food to our imagination about the Roma as homeless, illiterate, poor and completely depraved. This film also depicts a process that documents how common workers and schoolchildren are being transformed into “Gypsies” by forcefully uprooting them from their environment and making them homeless. But Žilnik’s film also shows that the Roma protagonists keep their dignity, even against all odds.

The interview :

Q: Let’s start with your film concept. In which way do you define your work; how are we to understand your documentaries, fiction film productions etc.?

ŽILNIK: I started to work in the mid 1960s, when I was 20 years old; I did some very early short films. When I was 27, I made my first fiction film Early Works. I was forced very early on to use all the methods of the amateur film movement. This amateur film setting also allowed me to get rid of the administrative labyrinths through which it was only possible to get money in order to make a film. It was a certain form of freedom.

I see two periods in my work: one from 1965-71, the other from 1971 to today. In my films, I am more or less trying to include some sort of reflection, personal diaries about the world I am facing. These films are documentaries, docu dramas, and they come very near to my personal emotions, stories, and narratives. There is also some provocation in them.

Q: But your work is also precise political film positioning, and I would like that we reflect on this point as well?

ŽILNIK: Of course politics influenced my entire life; socialism was by definition a very ideological society. Socialist ideology is possible to perceive today, if we put it in parallel with those societies that are formed and influenced by religion. In such societies religion has the role of putting forward identity definitions. Just think about the role of Catholicism in Spain, for example. After being under the rule of Arabs and Muslims, the formation of Spain’s new identity was carried out also through the building of churches.

Socialism was implemented in very poor parts of Europe. This is true for Russia and for Yugoslavia as well, after WWII. Socialism was used for the implementation of certain values of modernization. The Communist Party was not only a power instrument, but also a tool for modernizing society. Tito, the president of Yugoslavia who was elected for life presidency in 1945, and was in this position until he died in 1980, succeeded with socialism to transform Yugoslavia from a very rural and destroyed country into a reborn urban entity. Just six years after WWII it was possible to see Le Corbusier modernist architecture in the cities. The other part of this was the discrepancy between the lies of the politicians on one hand, and the new society of tomorrow, on the other that really troubled Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia existed in between very brutal state mechanisms on the one side, and proclaimed humanist values on the other. Ideological proclamations on one end and dreams on the other created a very strong pressure on the political nomenclature in the 1960s. But in 1965, Tito also dismantled the secret police and a lot of democratic hopes were put forward, built on the ideas proclaimed by Rosa Luxembourg, Marx and Gramsci. These were the different faces of Tito’s socialist regime.

The feeling at that time was that we were living in a very promising society. For example, on the island Korčula the famous Korčula summer school was held every year where I could meet philosophers, sociologists. I met Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Lucien Goldman in person — they attended this school. In Belgrade, I was living near the airport in Zemun, and I saw Gamal Abdul-Nasser, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, all visiting Yugoslavia. We had a feeling that we were living in a country that was influential. It was a naïve and idealistic feeling on one the one hand, as on the other hand there was the state and party brutality in the background.

Q: Were you ever put into prison because of your films?

ŽILNIK: Not really. I landed in prison just once by pure misfortune. I was working on a film with a group of child thieves, who happened to steal some goods the previous day, and the police accused me of pretending to make a film in order to train them how to steal. But, I was never really in jail, although I felt a lot of pressure in 1971 when the political situation changed radically and when following the student riots in Yugoslavia the whole society moved toward a strong political re-dogmatization of socialist reality. All my films were banned, their distribution stopped, and I was expelled from the Communist party in 1969. The expulsion from the party meant you were cut off from the community. I could therefore have been very easily jailed in those times. With my friends, we developed a practical lifestyle that meant that we were always ready to vanish, to move quickly to another place etc., or to change countries. For travelling to other parts of Europe we did not need visas at that time. In the 1970s, you could really feel the pressure; the police would just come during the night and knock on your door. After the very promising decade of the 1960s, the re-dogmatization of Yugoslav society in the 1970s was an extremely stressful period.

Q: Is it possible to say that your feature film Early Works from 1969 that won the Golden Bear at the 1969 Berlin film festival was a direct answer to these political and social situations?

ŽILNIK: Early Works was directly connected to the student riots in 1968 in Yugoslavia. The outcome in Europe and Yugoslavia was as strong as in the USA, where the student riots were directly connected with the protest against the Vietnam War. The student riots in the USA were a strong movement that connected American civil society and the underground. The US trembled under the student protests. In Europe, the student riots had different impacts; in Germany the younger population started to question the German establishment, and the younger generation wanted to know about Nazism and their parents’ role in it. These questions were all hidden after the Second World War, as Germany had a crucial role in putting up a wall against socialism and communism.

Similarly, students in France questioned the French hidden memories about the Vichy republic and General Petain’s collaboration with the Nazis.

With the 1968 students riots we witnessed the reinvention of history. The same process was going on in Yugoslavia. I mentioned that in 1965 the secret police was dismantled and its mastermind Ranković removed. This was followed by a really strong proliferation of new energy, connected with the translation and publishing of books and magazines. On the other hand, Tito was a kind of king, he was never criticized publicly and the whole political hierarchy around him wanted the same privileges; they were called the red bourgeois. And so when the riots started, slogans such as ‘Down with the Red Bourgeoisie!’ were used against the political nomenclature. Again this duality persisted; on the one hand the feeling of freedom of expression, and on the other, we had Tito as a dictator and the father figure of the nation. In 1968 he actually came to talk with the students, complaining that he was pressured as well by the apparatchik. Soon afterwards the party was re-organized and the society turned toward re-dogmatization.

Q: What is fascinating in your work is that you keep an important line of criticism and political involvement, and this is an attitude that was not used only during the period of socialism, but also today. Today, in a different context, it is possible to see the same strength and power in your work. How could these elements persist for such a long time in your work? Can you explain this situation, that although the system has changed, your criticism stays remarkably powerful and constant?

ŽILNIK: It is difficult to explain, to give a pure rational background to this. Maybe it was the outcome from being expelled from the party at a very early age. Also, I watched the state become a mechanism of oppression, or simply change into a criminal organization. Maybe this is connected with my private life, as I grew up alone, both my parents, as antifascists, were killed in WWII. I lived with my grandfather, but still, I was alone. So my work is also a way of surviving, this surviving was connected with the process of sticking to some values in order to take these values as a shelter.

Q: Still it is 40 years of remarkable persistence seen as a critical tool within film?

ŽILNIK: Ok, let’s look at this from a different perspective. Living in socialism was not a time in which we felt totally oppressed and uncomfortable. Socialism was a society that was also dealing with certain hopes. In the 1960s, it was a society that people were not ashamed of, but after 1972 and to the present things changed radically, and we started to realize we were living in a society we could be ashamed of. When I was 11 years old, I was brought to the National Parliament with 300 other pupils, all excellent pupils at school. We received a strange cake, a sort of mignon, and we ate it as if it were a banana. The way we perceived history at that time was through national poems in which we could hear about the heroic acts of our parents and co-nationals in the past. New cultural identity was developed through national poems that spoke about heroism, courage and surviving. And so, these 300 pupils and me included with them were sent to London by train to exchange what we were learning at school and to testify about the new generation in Yugoslavia. The reason was also that at that time the Labourist party in Britain had thrown Churchill from power, and that Tito was invited for a visit to London.

Each of us stayed with a trade union family, and I was living with a family of a double deck bus driver. I discovered history while visiting the British Museum of History. There you could see history in artifacts. In Yugoslavia it was not possible to find a knife from the 5th century!

Q: Let’s talk in the end about the international film context. About the possibility of showing films in the 1960s and 1970s at international film festivals, such as, for example, the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen. How were these invitations perceived in Yugoslavia at that time?

ŽILNIK: Before I was invited for the first time to Oberhausen, I had already made several films in Yugoslavia. When the invitation came it was very stressful. Why? In Yugoslavia at that time invitations from festivals to show a proper film were never given personally to the film director. A list of films that the International Festival would like to present had to be submitted to a special commission in Yugoslavia. This commission then decided which film would be shown. When I received the award for my film at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, it was a strange situation. I actually smuggled the film in my suitcase to the festival (as it was only one film reel), and after I received the award nothing was published in the Yugoslavian press. Why? Because the invitation and the approval to send the film had not been given by the aforementioned Commission. But I remember when the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen sent the list, this became the object of an intense debate, and the whole thing was discussed as a political question in the Yugoslav parliament. The reason was because of the general perception of German politicians at the time who were seen as almost being the successors of nobody else than Joseph Goebbels. And so in “Borba”, the most important political daily newspaper in Yugoslavia, a large article was published with the title: “What do these people from Oberhausen want?”

The Yugoslav press perceived the festival almost as a kind of profascist institution. In short, the support from the West for our films therefore was seen as something very distractive and it caused enormous pressures on us.

On the other hand, I had the chance to see the work of Alexander Medvedkin at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen. I realized afterwards that he was banned in Russia for almost 40 years. In Yugoslavia it was very difficult or even impossible to see the Russian avant-garde and experimental film tradition. Medvedkin’s work had such a powerful impact on my work that afterwards I developed some of his visions in terms of the constructivist influence onto film narration, and incorporated them into Early Works, in what was my first feature film in 1969.

Želimir Žilnik
Film Director based in Novi Sad, Serbia and Monte Negro


Interview with CANDIDA TV:
Agnese Trocchi

by Radmila Iva Janković


AN Interview with Želimir Žilnik
by Gržinić and Steyerl

Interview with CANDIDA TV:
Agnese Trocchi

by Radmila Iva Janković