6 May - 20 May, 2018
As part of Želimir 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.”
Merlyn has been helping to pacify the Balkans by turning tricks with countless Serbian men. She acts a lightning rod that shelters Belgrade—calming violent nighthawks, swanky big spenders, miserable loners, and horny young studs, and taking on the charge that would otherwise befall little girls, unprotected mothers, and helpless old women. Combined with guns, this unbridled energy would otherwise eventually lead to bloodshed. Merlyn cools the boiling blood of violent man and enriches it with love. Johnny returns from war and arrives home in Belgrade. His motives are apparently similar to Merlyn’s—he also wants to cool boiling blood, but he does it by letting it out through holes in the human body, which he makes with bullets and knives. Marble Ass is a treatise on the different methods of resolving conflicts, as resorted to by Merlyn and Johnny.
The semi-fictional character of Merlyn is played by actor Vjeran Miladinović, who appeared in a few of Žilnik’s previous movies, and with whom a chance encounter prompted the making of this film. She was the one who introduced Žilnik to Belgrade’s trans bars and hangouts, where he realized that, in the midst of the war, this felt like the most normal and levelheaded community. The movie was funded by the earnings of Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time. It was very successful, receiving the Teddy Award at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival and shown in numerous LGBT film festivals around the world.
The film portrays the amateur writer Bora Joksimović, who works by day as a heating maintenance mechanic at the Zrenjanin theater. Unhappy with the shows he sees at the theater, he decides to try his luck as a playwright. He ends up writing fifty-three plays with “mighty plots,” including Hitler and Stalin: Conversations in Hell, Life of a Croatian Woman in Belgrade, Fratricide, and so on. In the film, some of the scenes from his plays are staged.
When, in the autumn of 1976, Žilnik returned to Yugoslavia from Germany, he was asked to make a film for television. There was a high demand at the time for original programming in the drama department, which was broadcast every Monday at 8 p.m., and each Yugoslav republic was required to produce a certain amount of this programming. Žilnik was immediately intrigued by how to deal with the fact that after the evening news, a broad audience would continue watching this program (the average number of viewers was between 3 and 4 million people), while at the same time maintaining his critical interest in portraying neglected topics and people. Because of his controversial reputation, he was first asked to produce a comedy, so he became interested in investigating the amusing story of Bora Joksimović, who later also played in his docudrama serial Hot Paychecks in 1987.
People from the village of Jazak, located on the Fruška Gora Mountain in Vojvodina, show how they fought underground against the occupying forces during the Second World War. They speak of dramatic events such as how they helped to hide partisans and how young people joined partisan units in Bosnia. We listen to people’s recollections of the arrests, persecution, and torture. In the last quarter of the film, the participants speak about the events that took place in the autumn of 1944, when the village was liberated and Russians passed through the area. They remember the joy and great expectations they had for the forthcoming freedom and socialism.
The film was produced by Cinema Club Pančevo, with which Žilnik had collaborated earlier, as an amateur. This production house had a job filming a commercial for a hotel close to Jazak. During the day, the crew and the equipment were used for that job, and during the evening hours, Žilnik used them to make his own movie.
Žilnik’s approach to this film was motivated by a political shift in the cultural sphere in Yugoslavia, since the interference of party apparatchiks was becoming more direct. The space for critical films was shrinking, and even award-winning movies were taken out of distribution. This included some of Žilnik’s films, such as The Unemployed, Black Film, June Turmoil, and others. The emphasis in state-sanctioned cinema was only on expensive, Hollywood-like partisan spectacles in which foreign actors starred (for example, Richard Burton played Tito in Battle of Sutjeska (1973)) and that presented partisan guerillas in a way that was far from any reality. Uprising in Jazak is Žilnik’s answer to that trend. The committee for evaluating films banned it, saying that Žilnik had gathered a bunch of thugs and made them play partisans. Žilnik returned to Jazak to inform the protagonists of the film that it had been banned. They were extremely offended, so they gathered up their old guns and all their official war honors and stormed back to the city together with Žilnik, directly to the Ministry of Culture. The minister now recognized a few of them, who were prominent partisan fighters, and became frightened by their shouts of “fascist traitor” and threats to sue him. He found the official paper banning the movie, tore it apart in front of them, and said, “Comrades, this was a mistake.”
Ivana, a young seamstress, quits her job in a sweatshop in Novi Pazar and accepts an offer to become a waitress in a joint privately owned by Mr. Šećo in Gusinje, a Montenegrin village at the Yugoslav-Albanian border. She and the head waitress become fast friends. Brothers Skelzen and Becir come to Gusinje from New York on a holiday; they meet the waitresses, and romances ensue. We watch the meeting of Serbian and Albanian cultures, languages, customs, and family traditions in the fascinating, mountainous landscape. While the men promise the girls marriage and life in America, there are numerous obstacles in the realization of the plan, and the brothers return to New York alone.
This is one of Žilnik’s bigger TV productions, as he was given a decent budget after the success of his previous films, and he also garnered a lot of support from the local community, which was happy about his interest in them. Žilnik had heard about an Albanian village with a large number of emigrants to New York, and went to investigate it. He was introduced to the head of the village, who said he had four sons in the US, and that if Žilnik wanted to show how good, strong, and honest this community was, they would all be glad to help. They saw the film before it was publicly broadcast and “approved” it. In a time of rising nationalist tensions, the film offered a precious appreciative view of the Albanian minority and relations between peoples.
Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994), 43 min
A man dressed in Marshal Tito’s uniform appears and, instantly, groups of people flock around him. In this film, Žilnik brings the former Yugoslav leader back to the streets of Belgrade to see how his people are now living without him. Tito’s double wanders around the city and procures remarkable reactions as people come up to speak to him, feeling the need to articulate their destinies to him. Žilnik collects statements from a cross-section of Yugoslav society, revealing its attitudes toward the past and the current government.
In the dark political climate of the 1990s in Serbia, Žilnik approached the prominent critical and oppositional radio station B92 and suggested they should also start producing movies. They said they had no budget, but could spare 300 DM. Žilnik and his cameraman, Miodrag Milošević, assembled a small crew (nearly all voluntary), found the actor Micko Ljubičić to play the role of Tito, and made the film in two six-hour shoots. On the first evening, they were confronted by police for being in the way of traffic, and the director and cameraman were arrested. But then “Tito” came to pick them up at the station, and the policemen let them go, saluting Tito as they left. This film was extremely popular and many thousands of copies sold. It was also shown on local television, as well as in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Japan.
Žilnik and his crew used the funds from it to make Marble Ass a year later, a film that also deals with wartime Serbia and was produced by B92.