22 April – 6 May, 2018
As part of Želimi Žilnik exhibition “Shadow Citizens”, more than 20 Žilnik’s films will be available for online viewing. Many of these are rarely screened, and all are being made available online to this extent for the first time. The films trace various periods and different working conditions within Žilnik’s practice. They are organized in five sections, each available for viewing during the exhibition for two weeks.
The descriptions of the films were composed using material provided by Želimir Žilnik, primarily through several long conversations in Novi Sad and Zagreb, which extended over many months. They are stories that follow the curiosity of the curators surrounding Žilnik’s memories of the experiences of making each film, which he patiently and generously shared. As personal traces such as these open up future research and interpretations, the particular method of their collection, if there was one, was described by Želimir with yet another story: “As Mao Zedong said to his successor Hua Guofeng: With you in charge of business, I can relax.”
Illegal migrants and asylum seekers are housed in refugee centers in Serbia following dramatic flights from the wars and destitution gripping areas of North Africa and the Middle East. These people must pass through a complex period of adaptation to life in Serbia, though in most cases their aim is to arrive in countries within the European Union. This incisive docudrama highlights the sociopolitical context in which they show their individual worth, in the process becoming protagonists with whom viewers can identify and whose struggles with adversity and uncertain fates they can understand.
While filming this movie, Žilnik realized that many local people were friendly to the migrants, partly because of the fact that several of their own family member had emigrated to the countries that these people were trying to reach, and also because, for the elderly, they remembered the friendly relations established during the times of the Non-Aligned Movement, when students from decolonized countries studied in Yugoslavia. While working on the film, the crew also witnessed the rising tide of hate speech coming from right-wing parties, just as in the 1990s when the same strategies were used to add fuel to the wartime ideology of hate.
The film presents a series of portraits and situations people found themselves in after being made redundant during a time of economic reform, which was a move toward establishing a market economy in Yugoslavia. In the interviews, people speak about their doubts and confusion arising from the fact they had been expecting socialism to give them more social security. They criticize parasitic bureaucracy as well as the neutralization of unions and the revolutionary moment. They opt to leave for Germany and to work there, since around that time, Yugoslavia and Germany signed an agreement allowing a number of Yugoslav guest workers into the German workforce.
The film was produced by Neoplanta Film in Novi Sad. The original version was twenty minutes long and consisted of two parts: Men and Women. The Unemployed – Women was partly shot in the bar of the Hotel Putnik in Novi Sad, and includes interviews with prostitutes and strippers. Before becoming a stripper, one of the protagonists was a trade union functionary in a textile factory. The first part of the film, with men preparing to go to Germany, was approved by the review committee, but the second one with women was censored and never screened. Filmmakers were allowed to be present during the review screenings of their films by the censorship board, and during the meeting Žilnik was told:
“We can see that the workers are unhappy, but we are sending them to Germany, ruled by Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic Party. There they will continue their education and their class consciousness will get stronger. But women, they are steeped in immorality and lechery. They will hardly regain their belief in socialism and communism. Cut the women, or we will not approve the film.”
Žilnik found the original footage in 2010, when the archive of Neoplanta was moved from Novi Sad to Belgrade Cinematheque, but decided to leave the film in its shorter version.
The Unemployed won the Silver Medal at the March Festival in Belgrade (Yugoslav Documentary and Short Film Festival) and the Grand Prix (Der Grosse Preis) for documentary film at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.
In this documentary, fifteen-year-old Pavle Hromiš, obeying the will of his parents, leaves Germany and goes to live in Yugoslavia with his grandmother in the village of Kucura. He attends secondary school and lives in a boarding house where he meets new friends, but has problems with the language and different school curriculum. He wants to go back to Germany, and gets involved in many discussions about that.
Žilnik’s interest in children going off to school in different cities and living away from their families was personal, because his aunt, who raised him, was the director of a big boarding house in Novi Sad. When Žilnik started researching the pupils who would appear in his documentary, he was surprised to find many couldn’t speak the Serbian language well, and were lost between two identities. Because this documentary, produced by Novi Sad Television, was so well received, the Belgrade-based production company Art Film 80 asked Žilnik to make a docudrama based on it. He shot 30 percent more material, and the following year completed the movie The Second Generation, following the same plot. It was also highly successful and was broadcast on many public TV stations in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. For this film, as with many others, Žilnik renounced his director’s fee and instead agreed to a percentage from the sale of the film rights.
Tenants of an old building in the center of Munich are featured in this film. Most of them are foreigners from Yugoslavia, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere who work in Germany as Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers.” In their mother tongues, each tells who they are and briefly talks about their major worries, new hopes, and plans for the future. This film was shot in a just a few hours shortly after Žilnik moved to Germany. The process of communication with the protagonists and persuading them to take part in the movie offers a precious view into many issues that Žilnik will later face himself, also being a “guest worker.”
Žilnik continued working with the Gastarbeiter community in other films he made during this period. One of the most prominent and best reviewed of these films was the now lost Antrag (1974), in which he dealt with the dispute around the 1974 invasion of Cyprus among Turkish and Greek workers on a construction site. Four of Žilnik’s documentaries from the German period are lost, partly because he had to leave the country abruptly and partly because one of his producers, F. T. Aeckerle, moved to Africa.
This is a story of Yugoslavs who left the country during the war and spent over ten years in Western Europe as refugees or in asylum. In the second half of 2002, the European Union sent many of these people back to Serbia and Montenegro together with their families, believing there was no longer any reason for their stay. Procedures for their return were usually very strict. Families were gathered during the night, transported to the airport, and sent to Belgrade on the first flight. To make things more dramatic, the majority of children born in Western European countries could speak and write the other language better than their mother tongue. As these families often had to sell everything they owned when leaving, they faced a situation back home where normal life was practically impossible.
Kenedi Goes Back Home follows two friends, Kenedi and Denis, as well as the Ibinci family from Kostolac during the first couple days after arriving at Belgrade Airport. We see them trying to find accommodation and searching for friends and other family members. Kenedi goes to Kosovska Mitrovica, where his family used to have a house, to which he now does not have access. The film focuses on the position of the Roma people as the most vulnerable part of the returned population.
The making of this film began with research into the situation of children who were born or grew up in Germany and were now being forcibly deported back to Serbia. Žilnik filmed the kids as they sent regards to their former classmates, and when shown in public discussions and forums, this footage stirred public outrage. Žilnik was contacted by the German authorities and it came to light that the German government had given monetary support for each family to the Serbian government, but it never made its way to the deported families to assist their return. Consequently, Žilnik was not allowed at the airport to film the returnees, and by sending out a casting call for someone who spoke German, Serbian, and Romani, he met Kenedi, who could pretend he was at the airport to wait for relatives.
At the same time, Žilnik was contacted by the German Green Party, which sent five parliament members to Serbia to look into the embezzlement of the support funds for the refugees. When they visited expelled families and saw the dire situations in which they were living, the delegation asked Žilnik if he could put together an eighty-minute film to show at public cinemas in Germany. The Green Party held the opinion that good students and pupils should not be expelled from the country, as Germany needed educated workers. They paid for the production house Terra Film to produce a 35 mm print, and the film went on tour in North Rhine-Westfalia, Hessen, and Berlin. It stirred a lot of debate in the cities where it was screened, and even led to decisions in certain cities to stop the deportation of young people. The film was also shown in regional parliaments and at the European Parliament, as well as discussed at the Azilpolitische Forum Deutschland. The film won awards at film festivals in Herceg Novi and Novi Sad.