Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
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4 Feb

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Zelimir Zilnik in Skopje (Macedonia) for a master class, 2001 (Photo credit: Nikola Tanurovski, Multimedia) YUGOSLAVIA
In search of happiness
Želimir Žilnik interviewed

Žilnik is still employing the creative and provactive style that brought him to prominence in the late 1960s. Igor Pop Trajkov talks to the director.

Žilnik is the director that in 1969 beat Midnight Cowboy in Berlin with his first feature film, Rani radovi (Early Works, 1969) and won the Golden Bear. Attacked many times by the grey eminences of the establishment, he remained faithful to his own creative poetry and continued to be very productive, despite the historical changes that occured around him.

He was once very popular among Yugoslav liberal audience and directed hits such as Lijepe žene prolaze kroz grad (Pretty Women Walking Through the City, 1985) or Tako se kalio celik (How Steel Was Tempered, 1988). He caught the eye of the critics with his very provocative Dupe od mramora (Marble Ass, 1995) and Kud plovi ovaj brod (Wanderlust, 1998), while films such as Bruklin-Gusinje (Brooklyn-Gusinje, 1988) were an exercise in style.
Dusan Makavejev and Zelimir Zilnik teaching in Skopje, 2001 (Photo credit: Nikola Tanurovski, Multimedia)
A double bill of masters:
Makavejev and Žilnik in Skopje
He also made many excellent documentaries and short films, among which are Sedam mađarskih balada (Seven Hungarian Ballads, 1978) and Tvrđava Evropa (Fortress Europe, 2000).

Kinoeye met Žilnik at a film master-class organized by Multimedia in Skopje, Macedonia. Teaching together with his colleague Dušan Makavejev, he proved once again that he is still a force to be reckoned with.

Kinoeye : You are a director from the so-called "1969 generation." Were you aware at that time that you were a part of the big movement?

Želimir Žilnik: What is very specific about our profession is that we are aware that the entire atmosphere in, or climate of, the society can be changed. So, we recognized and followed a time of major changes in systems and ideologies all over the world. But I wouldn't say that I am a representative of the '69 generation because I had made many provocative short films before it as well. I started in the mid sixties—the time when Yugoslavia and Tito's system were at their prime.

Zelimir Zilnik's Tako se kalio celik (How Steel Was Tempered, 1988)
Satire on Socialism: Tako se kalio celik

My generation (the post World War II generation), was a group of people whose goal was to change the system entirely, who aimed to alter the filmmaking system, as the previous generation had a lot of dogmatic practitioners within their structure. So, after World War II, the system was immediately changed and later it also underwent internal changes in 1948. The post-World War II generations had just learnt to stand on their own feet, and then they had to change [their ways] again. There was a lot of violence and frustration inside the leading structure at that time.

The consequences of the change could really be felt after ten years, when Yugoslav socialism was becoming a different kind of socialism. That socialism had its own [form of] communication with the western and eastern world and was, economically, very successful. Those were the things that enabled the occurrence of the so-called golden age of Yugoslav cinema, and directors such as Saša Petrović, Dušan Makavejev (both from Serbia), Bostian Hladnik (from Slovenia) and Ante Babaia (from Croatia).

So, I was a part of a cinematography that was very successful; we had good examples to follow from our colleagues. We were living in a very open society and we knew everything that was happening in the world of cinema. I went to many festivals with my short films. First, I won a prize in Oberhausen; later, in Berlin.

But in '68 all those movements and demonstrations criticizing the system were irritating the people at the top, so they started denigrating us. We sympathised with the demonstrations in Czechoslovakia, and the power structures began the process of redogmatising society.

Zelimir Zilnik's Tako se kalio celik (How Steel Was Tempered, 1988)
Famed actor Lazar Ristovski in a classic role

After 1971, all those directors [mentioned above] were practically unable to make films; many of them left the country and never came back. It is very interesting how these things may affect the creativity of a society. For example, during the Milošević regime, as a reaction against it, a lot of creative energy was generated and many good films were made, although it seemed impossible. I think it is very important, when someone decides to start [a career] in filmmaking, to remain in one's own field of self-expression. To keep one's sense of self-confidence, not to betray one's own expression and say something that one doesn't feel. To be able to keep yourself in that amazing physical condition, no matter what is hapenening to you.

Please tell us something about how you decided to become a director. What is your background, do you have any artists in the family? And how did you survive in this profession for so long?

I showed an interest in painting, literature and other arts from a very young age, I even was proclaimed to be a very successful painter in Vojvodina. But film as a medium seemed much more complex and interesting to me. And I liked films. The films of Italian neorealists were some of the most powerful things that I had ever seen. Also, I was impressed by the American underground movement that was an opponent of Hollywood clichés.

I survived because the act of filmmaking makes me very happy. Moving pictures fascinate me, even when I am making short movies, documentaries, and television-films. I like to work all the time. I don't like to wait for public funds; waiting for them can make you lose your energy and fitness. I never wait for money from the state. Also, if you wait for that [kind of] money you will be put in a position [where] some bureucratic structures will decide [what happens to] your movies and that's not good. That can eliminate the impulses that one has while making a film. That's why I have always preferred low-budget films. The digital format is also a nice way to express yourself.

Zelimir Zilnik's Kud plovi ovaj brod (Wanderlust, 1998)
Shooting on video

For these reasons, we once had so-called "working groups" in Belgrade—production houses that did not depend on state funds. Now I have to say that in Yugoslavia almost everything has been destroyed, and we have no technical conditions for filmmaking. Everything that I've been working on for the last few years I've shot on digital or video, edited it on a small PC and then transfered it to 35mm. Yes, it is very difficult to survive in this profession in these small and poor countries. Usually, directors must change their primary creative impulses into some more suitable ones.

That wasn't quite the answer I was looking for. What about the deeper side—something about your childhood or family?

I am from this area, my parents were partisans and they were both shot by the Nazis in Niš during World War II. I was adopted, I had new parents. I had contacts with some really interesting directors from Yugoslavia. When I saw the films by [Vittorio] De Sica and then the ones that were coming from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, I decided to become a filmmaker. I didn't want to watch films that were full of violence, because they are destroying their own ideas. Then some other films influenced me too, like the film Happiness directed by Agnès Varda [Le bonheur, 1964]—for me that movie is an endless source of inspiration.

I noticed that in your first films you were under the strong influence of the Russian school, especially in the way they were edited. Did this so-called "Russian touch" happen intentionally?

Yes, for me the Russian school of expressionism was always a good example. But, at that time, a lot of people were running away from that influence; I discovered these movies as something that had been rejected. I liked that expressionism in the early Soviet and even world cinema from the twenties. In the beginning of the sixties, the film language was changing towards a new kind of narration; like the expressionism and essayism in the movies of [Jean-Luc] Godard. This is a method that I call the method of self-observation in the French New Wave. I wanted to do something like that, too.

Did you expect the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969? Did it do you any good?

Zelimir Zilnik's Kud plovi ovaj brod (Wanderlust, 1998)
A political comedy

It didn't surprise me [to have won] because at that time, Yugoslav cinema was simply at its best. Many of my colleagues won awards—Saša Petrović won the Grand prix [spécial du jury] in Cannes, Dušan Makavejev and Zika Pavlović won Silver Bears. I think [that], at that time, cinematography existed because some really big questions were supposed to be asked through films—[questions] like: How would it be to change this world? If you read the reviews for Rani radovi written at that time (like the ones in Time, Der Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung etc) you can see that they were all saying very good things.

However, in Belgrade, that award provoked many bad reactions from the bureaucratic, ideological, party elite and they were trying to denigrate it. It probably provoked the parasites in the film business too, which at that time made up [something] like 80 percent of Yugoslav cinematography—that is how much money they were spending.

There is a big misunderstanding in your generation when you speak about the sixties and seventies. You are mentioning these big names such as [Saša] Petrović, [Zika] Pavlović; only we were not big at that time, we were marginalized by society. Most of the money was given to the historical mega-productions [centered around] World War II, [productions] that, unfortunately, didn't show the real struggle of the anti-fascists. These films were making some kind of historical blockade, emphasizing the personality cult—which, in the end, was totally counter-productive. These films aimed to show how powerful this system was. So this parasitic side of cinematography was giving a direct blow to the productive, modern cinema at the end of the sixties. That's why they attacked us in 1971.

While they were attacking you, you remained very proud; you didn't blame anyone. Where did you find the energy for that?

In that kind of situation you have to distance yourself [from the events]. When we look at the history of art, it is obvious that people who wanted to change the clichés had to face this wall of rejection. When you want to launch a provocation, when you want to change the standards, to do something outside the tradition, you shouldn't be surprised when you receive this energetic negative reaction. On the contrary, in this case you should be satisfied that you received this kind of reaction.

You have to decide whether you want to play this role of victim, loser—[which is] what they wanted. They want to break you. So, I discovered some new mechanisms in life, a new attitude towards life and my happiness and unhappiness.

In the end, I decided that the goal of my life would be to make many films—which I did. Now I have 25 films (for TV and cinema) and 80 documentaries. So, when I hold a workshop like this one, I can show these young people different methodologies and strategies. I never wanted to play the role of "the status director," always waiting for money from the state. Those are my priorities, and what I chose doesn't make me feel frustrated at all.

Were you helping each other—I mean, colleagues that were in this same situation?

That is a very interesting question. That [form of] help or solidarity does not exist in a very explicit way. Here and there someone will show you some signal that he is with you by doing the same as you do. One must not have any illusions that when you do something good, you are going to be saved. That is the case throughout history. Look at the situation here: there's no real reason to expect that we will receive a great amount of charity or a great privilege.

Zelimir Zilnik in Skopje (Macedonia) for a master class, 2001 (Photo credit: Nikola Tanurovski, Multimedia)
The director at the Skopje masterclass

In your early works in particular you have some really explicit and provocative sex scenes, which was also the case with other Yugoslav directors of your generation. Some Western critics called this the "Balkanisation of sex."

That was a very specific thing at that time. In socialism, it was a part of freedom of expression—erotica with all its anarchy. But in the Western world it had a totally different connotation. It was considered as a form of political provocation. But what is most important is that in show business there are different borders for how far you can go for every single thing.

Your films have characters who develop very well. And I think that you have two faces—the first is very wild, the second one stylish. How did you manage to develop your own aesthetics?

When I develop characters, I try to develop them (together with the story) using many different strategies. Also, when I make a film, I try to have a nice and easy-going working crew. Young directors usually have great pretensions and they make films with a lot of inherent frustration: that's why their films usually look very nervous, not stylish. And after they make a film, they are very exhausted. Because I don't work like that, after [making] a movie I feel full of energy.

When I met you and other directors from Serbia, I noticed that you have that very "American approach," one can say a "free spirit." Why is it so? Will you try America one day?

I have been to America and have had a few very promising and encouraging conversations with my colleagues there. In the past few years I was very inspired by some American movies like Happiness [directed by Todd Solondz, 1999]—that title again! Who knows?

Igor Pop Trajkov

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Photo credits for Žilnik portraits: Nikola Tanurovski, Multimedia

Also of interest
About the author

Igor Pop Trajkov is a critic and film director based in Skopje. His articles have appeared in Macedonian publications such as Puls and Ekran and his films include shorts, documentary work and advertising.

Also by the author

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Bosnia opener




Fantasy and SF films


Ost-europäischen films


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Russian films


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Growing pains




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Regional programme


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