INTERVIEW WITH ŽELIMIR ŽILNIK, april 2018.
WHW: Since we are trying to touch upon the entirety of your work and engagement through the exhibition Shadow Citizens, let’s start from the beginning. How did you become interested in movies?
ŽŽ: At the time when my generation was growing up in the mid-1950s, watching films was an obsession, like gadgets for today’s digital generation. At that time, the cinema was the only window open into the world. There were ten times more cinemas than there are today, and the repertoire was very rich. In one cinema they showed cowboy sagas by Howard Hawks, John Ford, Fred Zinnemann; in another cinema they showed dramas, Italian beauties, palaces, and the Mediterranean—Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni. By the end of the ’50s, more realistic films emerged with which we identifed: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, and others.
When I finished high school, I was invited to be the editor of programs at a youth cultural center in Novi Sad called the Youth Forum. This place was as interesting as the cinema. It hosted experimental independent theater groups. We were exhibiting the latest visual trends. The film department exposed us to experimental films. I met filmmakers who were ten years older than me—Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović, Marko Babac, Mihovil Pansini, Vladimir Petek, Ivan Martinac, and so on. They had not been involved with professional film studios yet. Films were shot in 16 mm and 8 mm in cinema clubs. Participants in philosophical and sociological debates were people who would in a couple of years establish the Korčula Summer School and Praxis magazine: Rudi Supek, Gajo Petrović, Taras Kermauner, Veljko Rus, Danko Grlić, Zagorka Golubović, Nebojša Popov, Milan Kangrga, and others. Simultaneously with my work at the Youth Forum, I went to law school. There was no faculty of fine arts in Novi Sad, and these studies and completion of the law program helped me to cope and defend myself when I had problems with censorship and with court procedures in the years to come.
ŽŽ: From my earliest days, I used to spend a lot of time at the theater. My uncle Milenko Šuvaković was a theater director and the art director of the most important Yugoslav theater festival, Sterijino pozorje. I visited the rehearsals, went to workshops where costumes and sets were made, and I also met many actors. Then, at the production house Avala Film in Belgrade, I became an assistant director upon Dušan Makavejev’s invitation. Apart from local films, Avala Film also worked on big co-productions. For example, in collaboration with Artur Brauner’s German production house, CCC Film, costumes, props, and huge set designs were made at Avala Film for Die Nibelungen, in the mid-1960s, which was the most expensive postwar German film at the time.
I learned there what a complex job a feature film is; that the preparation is essential as well as the coordination of the team and the willingness of the director to make decisions, yet to be open to listening to his associates. I witnessed very awkward situations, conflicts, bullying, nervous breakdowns, and the loss of a lot of time and money—when unprepared bosses shouted at the crew and made demands, and did not know what they were saying. I learned then to focus my energy and time into preparation, in the choice of actor-interpreters and crew.
WHW: One notices a certain fascination with manual work in your oeuvre. You have shot horseshoeing, dough kneading, working in mines, and the like for a long time and with much love.
ŽŽ: We live in a time of virtual jobs, but fifty years ago we all defined ourselves according to what we were doing. Craftsmen not only served people but were also the most respected people in a village. When you needed to find out some information, you would be sent to to a barber’s shop; people gathered there, so he knew most. Craftsmen built cities, or rebuilt them after invaders had passed through. Novi Sad, where I live, was appointed the status of a city in 1749 by Empress Maria Theresa of the Habsburg monarchy. Before that, on the southern bank of the Danube, the huge Petrovaradin Fortress had been built, on the border with the Ottoman Empire. Novi Sad was then given its official Latin name, Neoplanta (New Garden); it was built as a center for craftsmen, vegetable growers, and administrators who served the needs of the fortress staff. Every couple of years, the soldiers were replaced or killed. The streets of Novi Sad had names like Shoemakers’ Street, Saddlers’ Street, Carpenters’ Street. If peace lasted, they would build schools, marketplaces and fairs, brothels and theaters.
Half a century ago, working on film also required various knowledge of machines, electricity, optics, and chemicals. When I started working in the professional 35 mm format, the camera required a cameraman with seven or eight assistants. One would put negative into the camera, take it out, pack it, and send it to the laboratory. Another one was needed for sharpening—taking care of the sharpness of the shot. A third one for “panning”—camera movements left and right, up and down. Four men were needed to set the rails for the camera, because it weighed 250 to 300 kilograms (this is the Arri Blimp 300). The cameraman, who was the head of that division, was called the director of photography. He mingled around the actors and sets with a light meter, measuring how the reflectors illuminated the faces. He made corrections. Shouted to his assistants telling them which lens to fit on the camera. He did not touch the camera. There were five or six electricians working on lighting, and they followed the directions of the director of photography.
WHW: Let us continue with the topic of work. Already in 1967, you made The Unemployed. Why were you interested in the topic of the unemployed so early in your career, and was it connected later with the many stories you told about guest workers, refugees, and so on?
ŽŽ: From the mid-1960s onward, it seemed to us that the cultural policy was rather relaxed, that dogmatic party apparatchiks were less influential. Filmmakers, visual artists, and other such types of makers were not employed; theirs was an independent status, and they were paid under authorship contracts. This provided a chance for film projects to be done as joint investments of a team of authors and a film studio that possessed incredibly expensive technology—laboratory, cameras, sound, and lighting. Financial parameters of the investment would be calculated, and the authors and the team would be “co-producers” and co-owners of the film. So both the risk and responsibility were shared. Some of the most important Yugoslav films were made upon this model of co-production, which were called “film working associations.”
The “liberal moment” of Yugoslav socialism was epitomized in the proclamation of the new program of the League of Communists from those years: “Nothing that has been created should be so sacred to us that it cannot be transcended and superseded by something still freer, more progressive, and more human.” At the same time, factories were being modernized, and companies started doing business with the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa, but also with the West, which called into question the “state-orchestrated general employment and prices.” Adaptation to market conditions was demanded. Trained professionals were employed. The egalitarian principle that the “working class is in line with progress” ceased to exist. In those years, agreements were signed with Germany and Austria under which they took in tens of thousands of Yugoslav workers in an organized manner based on needs for the reconstruction of infrastructure and to work in factories in the West.
I often passed by the Novi Sad Employment Center, and for days I watched the assembled unhappy workers, who said they were made redundant in their companies and now were waiting for the Germans to hire them. And indeed, the representatives of the trade unions from Germany and the medical commission arrived, too. They talked with people, assigned them to work posts. They organized their transport, accommodation, worker status, and employment. It was not just a situation of novelty and hope, but for many it meant stressful changes in rhetoric and memory, because there were a fair number of them who remembered the Second World War. There was little news and explanation in the media about this “new phase of our development.” Like most projects, we did The Unemployed to hear the whole story from the people who were confronted with an unknown and dramatic situation.
WHW: Later on you dealt often with the topic of guest workers, including in the television productions of the 1980s. Do you think that you may have anticipated what the film industry is going through today, where an increasing number of respected directors are doing television or internet series, which are often more brave than mainstream films?
ŽŽ: When I was in Munich in the 1970s asking around for producers, I noticed that filmmakers and teams were communicating through television without any fear. I went to Telepool, Tochter Geselshaft Bayerishe Rundfunk, and several other companies whose addresses and telephone numbers I had. They used to buy ten to fifteen Yugoslav films annually. As I was waiting for the director Siegfried Magold to see me, I heard that there were directors and producers of German and French films coming to see him to discuss co-productions. The director received me warmly, said he appreciated my short films and Early Works (1969), and asked me what I had that was new. I explained that I would like to work on a couple of documentaries with guest workers as protagonists. He referred me to Filmverlag der Autoren, which was a kind of film working community where Alexander Kluge, Werner Herzog, Edgar Reitz, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder worked on their films at that time. I had already met these filmmakers at festivals. I learned that if I were to do a feature film, I could send the project to Telepool and they would decide whether they would come on as co-producer, and also that once I finished my short film, I should offer it to them, so it could be bought for television. At that time in Yugoslavia, film production was oriented toward cinema distributors, both in the country and abroad, and new films (part of the so-called Black Wave), which I myself worked on, were very rarely shown on television.
Several years after my return home, I had in mind the Western European practice of creating for television, so I contacted Television Novi Sad. The main reason I did this, however, was the fact that I saw that all the other production doors were closed to me. Television had two extraordinary advantages: technology—from the laboratory to the studios, cameras, and lighting, everything was in-house. And most of the technicians were permanently employed and available. Another advantage was that when a film or a show was made, the audience was secured. In the late 1970s, when I started offering and realizing projects for the Novi Sad and Belgrade television houses, feature films that we had shot for drama departments were shown at eight in the evening and were seen on the Yugoslav Radio-Television Network by 4 to 5 million people. It was then that I faced a very difficult problem: How was I to keep dealing with destinies and topics that interested me and still be watched not only by people who appreciated such an approach, but also by families with three or four generations living in one household? The answer was found in a hybrid genre: docudrama.
And we managed to do several titles that were really innovative, critical, and outside the mainstream, which we would not have been able to do in the film industry Brooklyn-Gusinje (1988), Hot Paychecks (1987), Pretty Women Going through the City (1986), Oldtimer (1989), and others.
WHW: We are curious about your attitude toward female characters. For example, in Vera and Eržika (1981), we have two women fighting for their rights. You show them with great tenderness and affection. There are also in your films scenes like the one with the patriarchal father of a Roma family who wants to marry off his daughter against her will, and she escapes and tries to cope. There are also stories about female friendships in your films. But in Early Works you kill Jugoslava.
ŽŽ: There are fewer female characters in my films than I wanted. I wanted to have more of them because they fight in their lives on several fronts: they must eliminate the combination of male inferiority and aggressiveness; a husband’s frustration and neglect of children; being thrown out of the house; their sons becoming criminals; and alcoholism and domestic violence. In addition to all this, they have to feign seduction, and according to the current Balkan fashion, they also must be harem divas. Mission impossible.
For example, for Logbook Serbistan (2015) we were looking for female characters because they had been through the drama of war, famine, and threats of rape. But the male refugees would not let the women be in front of the camera. One agreed, provided the woman always held her child in her arms.
As far as Early Works , the protagonists were portrayed using a specific language, where visual and rhetorical symbols were used, with lots of proclamations and citations. The characters were outlined as a sketch and in a schematic manner. Only the main heroine had enough space to reflect the conundrums of what it means to be a “girl in socialism,” and the hypocrisy of the proclaimed freedom of speech and socialist slogans. She has to wade through the mud of male unfulfilled ambition and power. Early Works was shot in the autumn of 1968, after the tank intervention in Prague, against Alexander Dubček’s “socialism with a human face.” That film was a question mark. Could the current state of socialism be repaired, or would it disappear in the flames that took Yugoslavia away?
WHW: It seems to us that your political position has had incredible consistency throughout all your films.
ŽŽ: I cannot say anything about that. In my political position or attitude, I endeavor to maintain a kind of independence that matters to me. Without compromise, I will not put up with anything that I find to to be dull, rotten, and suspicious. Here I am ready for what is called a “sacrifice” in bourgeois life; that is, I am willing to give up or lose my position, or be removed by someone somewhere, which does not seem such a bad consequence to me. It depends on one’s character, and everyone’s is different. Some fantastically intelligent and fine people have a need to follow authority. I’ve had several such friends. They are not bad people; they just feel safer when they are under someone’s authority. And I feel as if I were chained under that authority. It is completely individual, and there is no answer to this. I would even find stating some political credo to be absurd. Look at the films—maybe I have somehow taken a position that some people liked, and in many situations I took a stance that many people did not like. I spent most of my life as a man regarded to be an eccentric who is always doing some kind of loser stuff. Even those television dramas and films that you consider today to be good were sincerely despised by many of my colleagues.
WHW: You wrote a manifesto that accompanied Black Film (1971), and at the 1971 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, you even showed the movie with the manifesto written over it. How does the manifesto sound to you today?
ŽŽ: It sounds pretty OK to me. If I used the same methodology to analyze the present situation, I would find today’s situation to be drastically more inhumane in terms of social difference and basic human rights than it was back then. In ex-Yugoslav countries there are millions of unemployed people, without any prospects for themselves or for their children. Pension funds have been looted. Factories have been seized in which workers invested their incomes to expand the production and technological innovation, as we did in the film working communities. The new “democratic national-capitalist” authorities do not acknowledge all this. Today’s corruption is several dozen times more brutal. Affiliation to the ruling party is more important for promotion in life than it used to be in socialism. The space for culture in the media has been reduced, as has advocacy for workers’ rights.
Client-friendly sponsorship of cultural institutions, including support for films, eliminates works that criticize, which is worse than before. The facts show that in the last twenty-five years of “freedom and democracy,” there have been no better and more critical films than When I Am Dead and Gone (1967) and The Ambush (1969) by Živojin Pavlović; Love Affair, or the Case of Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) and W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) by Dušan Makavejev; The Holiday (1967 and The Tre (1968) by Đorđe Kadijević; The Handcuffs(1969) by Krsto Papić; Sunday(1969) by Lordan Zafranović; The Living Truth(1972) by Tomislav Radić, and so on.
WHW: Can you tell us something about the figure or position of the dissident? From today’s sadly widespread anti-socialist and anti-communist perspective, it is as if this label has been attached to many positions that have not actually had dissident content. Were you seen as a dissident, too?
ŽŽ: Of those who say they had a critical attitude in the time of socialism, two-thirds are complete liars. Some of them were even placed high up in the bodies of cultural repression, as part of various commissions. My colleagues and I did not call ourselves dissidents. “Dissident” is a term from so-called “prison camp socialism,” where these artists were forced out of the country, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example. Or they were imprisoned. We had our passports with us in the early 1970s when several of us, all film directors, went abroad. I had the impression that the neo-dogmatic group had nothing against us leaving. On the contrary, it was as if they were expecting us to perform some sort of “enemy activity,” so they could arrest us. When we returned, Dušan Makavejev, Aleksandar Petrović, and some writers and painters, and I—we were not given the status of dissidents, but were considered “unsuitable, because of our conceptual errors.”
When I arrived in Germany as a guest worker, I could not say that I was a banned artist in Yugoslavia, because no one would have believed it. In those years, Yugoslavia produced films that received awards at the biggest festivals and that appeared on television in many countries. I was asked by the director Aleksandar Kluge, who was the president of the German trade union of film workers, to provide him Yugoslavia’s policy on stimulating film production. He had heard that this policy had been greatly successful. We translated it in a week, and significant parts were implemented in Germany’s new policy.
WHW: What do you think of our exhibition title, Shadow Citizens as a suggestion for a line that connects your work?
ŽŽ: The lives and fates of people who live off their work are constantly threaded through my movies. People in this category live in precarious conditions, without security and privileges, and they can rely only on themselves and the people closest to them. What is most important when you make a film based on those stories is that you work with people with nothing to lose. They are the people who should be given a medium through which they can express themselves in some way, by communicating their own attitudes or their feeling of being forgotten. When working with them, you are working with the oppressed and poor people who are least afraid of endangering their status in any way. They have this position of freedom.
I will give you an example from when I worked in Austria on a new film a year ago. The producer raised the funds to make a film about migrants who had received documents and were preparing for a longer stay in Austria and about how they were “becoming EU citizens.” With my associate Jasmina Janković, who is a court interpreter, we visited asylum centers to find people who wanted to participate in the film. The loudest ones approached us first, with their agendas: some wanted to form separate ethnic clubs, and they wanted us to promote them. Others changed their political favorites every couple of days—in late 2016, Syrian President Assad was declared a defeated party. But those who declared themselves as his opponents began to praise Iran and Russia in early 2017, while Assad was their “legitimate president.” When they heard I was from Serbia, they suggested we speak in the Russian language. I realized that we were wasting our time in the labyrinths of geopolitics between Trump, Erdoğan, and Putin.
But then we started talking to those who were going through the real administrative labyrinths so they could learn German, present their trades or professions, and get residence permits. Men and women told us stories that were new, stories that described the relations and tensions that had not been present either in the war at home or on the road, such as misunderstandings in the family between authoritarian fathers and children or between relatives who found it difficult to grasp language lessons. The older men felt uncomfortable being taught and evaluated by women. On the other hand, there were young people who found friends and integrated faster; they wanted to live alone, away from their families, in “freedom,” as they say. Then girls and women told us about situations they had not expected. For example, that the parents of a young refugee would not allow their son to marry a woman whom he had met as a refugee seeking asylum, because she was “unclean”—she had been through hell and back—and they coerced him to marry a bride he did not know, who was “a virgin,” and whom they would bring in illegally.
Based on these stories and with the help of those who wanted to take part in the film, we drew up a concept and a shooting schedule. We edited the film a couple of months ago. I told the team and the producer that the first viewers should be the people in the film and those of us who gathered them, because if any of us have any objections to the final edit, we have to correct them. If we accept the film that we have been working on, experience tells me that others will accept it too, and maybe it will travel around the world.
WHW: Would you agree with us if we said that you constantly choose to stay “in the shadow”?
ŽŽ: It’s not simply a matter of choice—it is the real position I am in. I come from a country that has a small marginal market and where a marginal language is spoken. For example, regardless of my rather comprehensive film oeuvre, I cannot answer the simplest question that is being asked in America. They say there: “Do not bother us with all these many titles. Make a list only of films that earned $15 million and more.” My answer is: “I do not have such a film.” This is my real position. I do not want to say that it does not suit me. It does, because it allows me to do what really interests me.