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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Film Director based in Novi Sad, Serbia and Monte Negro