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Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video
Nov 03, 2020
One of the major figures of the Yugoslavian Black Wave in the 1960s, Želimir Žilnik has been making radical political films for over 50 years. Born in a Nazi concentration camp and working both under totalitarian regimes and in exile, Žilnik has always documented the lives of outsiders, resisters, and the marginalized. His short for Cinetracts ’20 documents a notable and somber day in Serbia as a farce of parliamentary election takes place amidst a pandemic and boycotts from the opposition parties. This conversation took place over email.
The original Cinétracts from 1968 were made just as you were starting out making your own films. Were you familiar with them when we contacted you about this new commission? Do you remember your initial thoughts when we contacted you about this project and if you had any ideas for what to make right away or if you sat with it for a while? I know a lot of participating filmmakers weren’t able to realize their initial ideas because of the pandemic and I think you alluded to something along those lines too.
I want to mention memories and experiences from the time when the original Cinétracts were made in the late 1960s. In the spring of 1968, two of my documentaries—Little Pioneers and The Unemployed—had premieres at the Yugoslav Short Film Festival, followed by screenings at the Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany. At home, both films were criticized as "disturbingly provocative documentaries" but, with the support of a younger generation of film critics, they were also awarded and recognized.
Oberhausen was, in those years, the center of the world for short films with fascinating programming. Some of the films I remember vividly to present day: The Sixth Side of Pentagon by Chris Marker—100,000 hippies, radicals and Yippies, with Norman Mailer as a narrator, protest against the war in Vietnam. The slogans are "Make Love, Not War." Photos of Che Guevara and Karl Marx are visible all around the protest. Brutal conflicts with the police erupt. The film is a powerful, expressive example of political engagement through film, with visible risks taken by the film crew as they are attacked by the police.
Then, a quite different short film, The Bed by James Broughton: anarchic and ironic structure, numerous protagonists, stark naked, realize the message, "sex is fun." Then, Walerian Borowczyk shows the experimental film Gavotte, with surreal scenes, in the spirit of Velázquez. George Lucas presents one of his early films—Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB—a sci-fi short about wild machines which attack humankind. Parallel with the screenings, endless debates and polemics over human rights violations, raging wars and the brutality of modern day colonialism are taking place at the festival venues. A group of young German filmmakers (Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge and other) is critical about the petite bourgeoisie criteria of German cultural politics of that era, which they compare to masturbation. They even made a film on the topic. At those debates, which lasted late into the night, there was a chance to see unedited film footage made in Berlin of demonstrations against the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, footage of violence by right-wing groups that led to assassination attempt of Rudi Dutschke, as well as footage from USA about civil rights movement, The Black Panthers… We heard about forming of film cooperatives, about Godard’s activism, but I do not remember that the Cinétracts project was mentioned. Obviously, it was shown later that same year.
Fast forward 50 years, your invitation to join the project arrives. I was on a big tour with my films, in Argentina, UK, and Germany, until March 2020, when European borders closed due to the pandemic outbreak. Back at home, daily routine completely changed, our lives are under restrictions, with real dangers of COVID-19 infection. Day in and day out, we witness painful, unbelievable situations. For example, citizens over the age of 65 (and I am in that group) have a total ban on leaving the apartment.
Only once a week, on early Saturday mornings from 3 to 7 AM, are we allowed to go grocery shopping. I would get up on Saturdays at half past two and hurry up to reach the line in front of designated supermarket with my shopping bags. This "wise regulation," however, brings dozens of old women and men into huge crowds and nervousness erupts, even panic. If somebody fails to return to their homes by 7 AM sharp, the police intervene and they face charges of disorderly conduct.
Several times, during the first month of lockdown, I tried to record those scenes with my phone camera and make my contribution for this project. But soon I realized that it would make no sense without sound recordings of conversations with people around me. So I had to change my original idea.
You ended up documenting the day of Serbia’s parliamentary elections, which is obviously a significant day, but your approach is to document ordinary life in Novi Sad instead of any of the larger upheavals, election boycotts, and machinations happening around the country. Without revealing any of the larger issues at play, you’re able to capture a mood and tone of the day as the visitors to the marketplace focus on survival and the air amongst the voters is funereal, maybe even toxic. The original Cinétracts were very didactic and live up to the “tract” part of the title but most of the entries from the Cinetracts ’20 project are more like postcards from around the world and I was grateful to receive this portrait from Novi Sad. Can you provide a little context for the short and share your experience of the day?
Amid the lockdown and the danger of spread of coronavirus, parliamentary elections were called in Serbia. Suddenly, almost all the legitimate and needed rules of social distancing and other protective measures were abandoned overnight and the state proclaimed “victory over the epidemic.” The opposition declared it a manipulation, as the election campaign, movement of people and traffic, and media freedoms were limited. A general boycott of elections was declared by a coalition of opposition political parties. Mass demonstrations erupted in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and other cities, criticizing the government. The next day, the regime sent provocateurs and hooligan groups to provoke physical confrontations with police forces and then blame it on protesters. Many people were imprisoned and injured. The brutality of police manipulation has led to despair, hopelessness, and discouragement.
As in similar periods in recent decades, on weekends I often go to a large market of secondhand goods in Novi Sad to gauge the mood and "measure the pulse" of ordinary people. At that market I have actually found some of the protagonists of my movies, from the '70s to more recent times. This time too, I saw the location and the people on the scene as a potential subjects for a cinematic experience about the day of elections.
Most of your career has focused on marginalized populations, whether it’s the homeless, gay and trans populations, or Romani and immigrants, but this might be the first zombie film I’ve seen of yours. Full of melancholy, folks dig through the artifacts of the past and are cynical about a future that they don’t have a choice about while the air they breathe might literally kill them. I’d be interested to hear how you think this film ties into your body of work.
Now you remind me that throughout my career, I’ve actually made several "mini-movies" of this kind but they're not being shown anymore because they got lost over the years. Some of them were made for television in Germany. Some were shown at film festivals and had some theatrical distribution but we can't find them. Those shorts were made on 16mm reversible film, with just one print made. Let me mention just two examples, one from the '70s and the other from the '90s.
The Oberhausen Film Festival invited me to make an introductory three-minute long film for a program of short films about sports. So I had this idea: in amusement parks, I saw some swings in the shape of a boat, four to five meters long. We fixed a 16mm camera to the swing shaft above, and turned the camera on. The result, all in one shot, was quite enchanting. First cheerful, then excited, the young couple sitting in the boat fell almost into erotic ecstasy, when they turned upside down. The title was Swenk Bewegung, Kreisbewegung, bring der Leib stark in Eregung, [which translates to] Swinging and Turning Gets the Body Very Excited.
Second example: a two-minute film Silo Danube, Vukovar. One shot, with a zoom. It starts with a close-up on a flock of birds on top of high grain silo. Birds are circling around, then dart down to the ground. The zoom opens up. A huge grain silo, the symbol of the Croatian town of Vukovar (close to the Serbian border), is riddled with holes from projectiles shot from tanks and military airplanes. Tons of grain leaked out of the silo and lay like deserted hills at the base of the silo. The birds land in flocks and peck at the grains. The film has no dialogue. Just the sound of wings fluttering. The film was declared the best documentary at the 1992 Belgrade Documentary Film festival—the year the war between Serbia and Croatia was raging. No zombies in that film, but I consider it one of the eeriest films I ever made.
Image from Žilnik's untitled short for Cinetracts '20 courtesy of the filmmaker
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