– Autumn/Winter 2010

Events, Works, Exhibitions

Shoot It Black! An Introduction to Želimir Žilnik

Boris Buden

It's not easy facing up when your whole world is black.

- The Rolling Stones, 'Paint It Black', 1966

It is usually said that Želimir Žilnik is one of the most prominent directors of the Black Wave, a tendency in Yugoslav film that emerged in the wake of the political and economic liberalisation of the country in the 1960s and 70s, and presents the best that Yugoslavia had produced culturally in its short-lived history.1 But what does it actually mean to be a protagonist in this cultural story from the communist past? To what does 'black' concretely refer in the phrase the 'Black Wave'? Let us start with this last simple question.

The newspaper article from 1969 in which the notion of the 'Black Wave' was first introduced opens from a curious perspective.2 The author looks at the reality of Yugoslavia from the perspective of several decades on - thus from today's present - and argues that this future will not be able to find 'our true picture'. That is, the authentic picture of Yugoslav society of that time is not in the 'yellowed yearbooks of the contemporary daily press', for 'this informative level stored in the archives and computer brains will fade into oblivion', but instead in the art made at the time. The future, as he states, will not believe those who had directly witnessed the actual reality but rather the 'condensed and suggestive artistic story and picture that this reality produced'.3 In his view, this is why the future will have a black picture of Yugoslav society of the 1960s and 70s

  1. Inspired by Italian Neorealism and various new waves in European cinema, the authors of Black Wave rejected the norms and ideals of an optimistic, self-congratulatory official culture, and openly exposed the dark side of socialist society - above all its ideologically hidden capitalist truth that emerged with the implementation of market economy and its devastating social consequences, like unemployment, massive migrations of workers both within the country and abroad, poverty, crime, etc. The most prominent directors along with Žilnik were: Živojin Pavlović, Bata Čengić, Dušan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrović.

  2. Vladimir Jovičić, '"Crni val" u našem filmu', in Borba, 3 August 1969, pp.17-24. All translations the author's.

  3. Ibid., p.17.

  4. For this reason I do not call attention to the name of the author of this particular article in this text. His personality is of secondary importance since his personal and public opinion at that time was immediately identified as the opinion of the Party itself.

  5. Indeed, the author explicitly distances himself from any concept of an 'educational' function of art. For him it is 'didactically old-fashioned to ascribe any functional attribute to art'. He also labels the idea that art should deliver some sort of message as 'Zhdanovism', or the Party doctrine on Soviet arts and culture developed by Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov in 1946. Moreover, he openly writes that he would have some understanding for the 'blackness' of Yugoslav films only if they would stay within the 'art for art's sake' concept of art. V. Jovičić, '"Crni val" u našem filmu', op. cit., p.19.

  6. Ibid., p.20.

  7. In terms of Heideggerian Angst that makes a subject experience society's being-toward-death.

  8. V. Jovičić, '"Crni val" u našem filmu', op. cit., p.20.

  9. With the new constitution of 1974 multiculturalism became the official ideology of Yugoslav state. The discourse on social justice didn't simply disappear from Yugoslav politics, it was translated into the new language of identity politics, which dominated politics - not, however, as an intra-social cause but rather as an inter-national one. The question of an (un)just redistribution is now posed not in relation of one class of society to another, but rather in relation of one republic - one nation - of Yugoslav (con)federation to another. This is clearly a post-socialist turn as it was defined by Nancy Fraser in her Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the 'Postsocialist' Condition, New York and London: Routledge, 1997, p.2. It demonstrates a shift away 'from a socialist political imaginary, in which the central problem of justice is redistribution, to a "postsocialist" political imaginary, in which the central problem of justice is recognition'.

  10. 'I do not hide from the people I am shooting the fact that I am making a film. On the contrary. I help them to recognise their own situation and to express their position to it as efficiently as they can, and they help me to create a film about them in the best possible way.' Žilnik in an interview in Dnevnik, Novi Sad, 14 April 1968. Quoted in Dominika PrejdovaÅL, 'Socially Engaged Cinema According to Želimir Žilnik', in Branislav Dimitrijević et al., For an Idea - Against the Status Quo, Novi Sad: Playground Produkcija, 2009, p.164.

  11. Želimir Žilnik, 'This Festival Is a Graveyard', manifesto to the 18th Yugoslav Festival of Short Film, Belgrade, 1971. Published in Heinz Klunker (ed.), XVII. Westdeutsche Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen (exh.cat.), Oberhausen: Westdeutsche Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, 1971.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid. Reporting from the festival in Belgrade the same German critic, Heinz Klunker, criticises Žilnik for seeing the situation 'too darkly' and for underestimating the freedom that film-makers in Yugoslavia have been granted, a freedom that Žilnik, as Klunker writes, 'equates with pure complacency'. From H. Klunker, 'Leute, Filme und Politik in Belgrad', Deutsches Allgemeine Sonntagsblatt, 28 March 1971.