Želimir Žilnik

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Želimir Žilnik
Желимир Жилник, ArmAg (2).jpg
Born (1942-09-08) September 8, 1942 (age 78)
EducationUniversity of Novi Sad
Years active1967-present
Spouse(s)Sarita Matijević
Parent(s)Konrad Žilnik, Milica Šuvaković

Želimir Žilnik (Serbian Cyrillic: Желимир Жилник; pronounced [ʒɛ̌limiːr ʒîlniːk]; born 8 September 1942) is a Serbian and Yugoslav filmmaker who rose to prominence in the late 1960s during the era of the Yugoslav Black Wave in cinema. He is noted for his radical, independent film practice and his pioneering use of hybrid nonfiction forms; he is also distinguished by his sociocritical views and solidarity with movements against the status quo. In the 21st century he has been celebrated with major career retrospectives all over the world and is now recognized as one of the most important politically-engaged European filmmakers working today.

Early life and beginning of career[edit]

Žilnik graduated from law school (University of Novi Sad). Prior to that, when he finished high school in his hometown of Novi Sad, he was offered a position as program director at Youth Tribune, which was a multidisciplinary cultural center in Novi Sad. It was here that Žilnik received his first practical experience working in arts management, and this position also allowed him to meet and collaborate with many important figures on the Yugoslav cultural scene. Žilnik worked in this capacity from 1961-63.

In the early 1960s, Žilnik joined Kino Club Novi Sad, which was a state-sponsored club for nonprofessional film enthusiasts. This is where Žilnik received his first practical experience in making films. Many of his films were shown on the large kino club film festival circuit in Socialist Yugoslavia. After a few years of sustained activity as a club member, including some awards that confirmed him as a promising emerging talent, Žilnik was offered a chance to work as an assistant at Avala Film, and his first credit in feature-length filmmaking was as assistant director to the legendary Dušan Makavejev on his early masterpiece Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, filmed in 1966. After that, Žilnik directed his first professional documentary Newsreel on Village Youth, Winter, which premiered in 1967. Žilnik received multiple prizes for this debut film, which also announced his interest in documenting the situation of people living on the margins of society.

Žilnik made three other short documentaries in the following years, including The Unemployed in 1968, which was a humorous but critical investigation of the conditions of ‘Gastarbeiters’ living and working between Socialist Yugoslavia and West Germany. This was his first major international success, winning the Grand Prix at Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen in Germany, considered then and even today as the premier destination for short film exhibition in Europe. At that point in his career Žilnik was chosen by Avala Film to direct a narrative feature, and in 1968 he began production on his debut feature-length film Early Works, which would go on to mark his career in perpetuity and also to become the climactic point in the public frenzy surrounding the turbulent moment of the Black Wave in Yugoslav film.  

In 1969 Žilnik won the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival for his debut feature-length film Early Works, which was inspired by the student protests in Belgrade held in the summer of 1968. Early Works was co-written by Branko Vučićević and the cinematographer and editor of the film was Karpo Godina. While Early Works was celebrated on the international stage, at home in Yugoslavia it suffered an official attack for its radical form and content. Early Works was tried in court, and Žilnik successfully defended his film from charges that it was harmful to the socialist system. But because of the unwanted attention from being labeled a participant in the controversial Black Wave, and also because of his unrelenting stance, plus the fact that his follow-up film (Freedom or Cartoons) was stopped in the middle of production, Žilnik did not have any access to production companies, so he left Yugoslavia for West Germany hoping that he could continue making films.

The 1970s[edit]

The mid-1970s in West Germany was the first of a few restarts to Žilnik’s career. At this time he found himself around the luminaries of the New German Cinema. Žilnik began directing short films that questioned the state of West German society in a confrontational manner. From 1973 to 1976 he made seven short films shown on television and in cinemas in West Germany, one of them, Public Execution, was banned by Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft in 1974. In 1976 Žilnik was able to direct a feature-length film in Munich titled Paradise, An Imperialist Tragicomedy, which took aim at cynical political manipulation through the activities of revolutionary factions. The film was too controversial for too many people, given the political climate then in West Germany with militant left-wing radicals. After Žilnik received a visit in his apartment from police officers he soon had to pack his bags and return to Yugoslavia.

The 1980s[edit]

Back in his home country Žilnik experienced another career restart. This next phase in Žilnik’s career began in the late 1970s and continued into the 1980s in Socialist Yugoslavia when he made documentaries and films for three television stations: TV Novi Sad, TV Belgrade and TV Ljubljana. The television films he made dealt with a rapidly-changing Yugoslavia at the dawn of its golden age, close to the end of its lifespan. As always, he focused closely on the blind spots in society, on those that live on the margins, and the effects of official ideology in a transnational world. His memorable films of this period include Pretty Women Walking Through the City, made in 1986, which is one of the rare post-apocalyptic science fiction films of that time in Socialist Europe, and which imagined the catastrophic end of Yugoslavia; Brooklyn-Gusinje, made in 1988, which examined the lives of Albanians living on the border of Montenegro; and Oldtimer, made in 1989, which depicts the cross-country motorcycle journey of a radio deejay who finds himself witness to a rapidly-decaying social fabric. The latter is a prescient fiction film hybrid that documents the rise of Slobodan Milošević and by extension the fall of Socialist Yugoslavia, which coincided with the fall of socialism in Europe in general. This period also marked the beginning of Žilnik’s long collaboration with cinematographer Miodrag Milošević, who in some ways crystallized Žilnik’s visual aesthetic, with the two of them working in a loose and unpretentious manner that was sensitive to the subtle flows between fact and fiction. Milosevic shot many films that Žilnik directed, from The Way Steel Was Tempered in 1988 through Logbook_Serbistan in 2015.

The 1990s[edit]

As Yugoslavia slid into brutal wars of secession in the 1990s Žilnik restarted his career yet again, this time turning to low budget video production. His productivity understandably dropped in the midst of harsh economic sanctions and the numerous other calamities of civil war. In fact, of all the decades he has been active, Žilnik made the fewest films in the 1990s. However, in turning his reduced means into heightened creativity, he directed two of his most iconic works in this decade. Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time, made in 1994, is a mid-length documentary intervention, what Žilnik called a ‘happening’.[1] In this hybrid work he took a famous Tito impersonator, Dragoljub Ljubičić, into the streets of a destitute Belgrade dressed as the former legendary leader of the League of Yugoslav Communists and walked him through the city center, allowing citizens to interact with him as they wished. The result of this risky experiment was a unique case study in mass psychology and the creative interpolation of collective trauma. This semidocumentary work was distributed on videotape and became an unexpectedly successful and profitable production.

His next film. Marble Ass, made in 1995, was the rare film in Socialist Europe that dealt openly and frankly with gay and trans sex workers. Žilnik depicted this hidden subculture as imbricated in a shadow war relief effort, through close contact with dangerous soldiers who returned home stunted by their experiences both emotionally and sexually. In some ways Marble Ass is the key exemplar of Žilnik’s vision of an independent, radical humanism communicated with honesty, courage, and political forthrightness. The film won the Teddy Award for best feature at the Berlin International Film Festival, which is given to outstanding works that highlight LGBT topics. Marble Ass marked Žilnik’s triumphant return to the international stage, and it remains one of the great successes that define his career. As Žilnik himself noted, ‘It was a greater success than Early Works in terms of publicity, speaking engagements for myself and so on.’[2]

In late 1996 Žilnik took part in the huge civil protests against nationalism and war in Belgrade, and he made the short documentary Throwing off the Yolks of Bondage, which circulated throughout the region as the first dispatch on what was going on during the 80 days of protests. His last film in this decade is Fortress Europe, shot in 1999. The film follows a group of Eastern Europeans fleeing from collapsed socialist economies toward the West in search of work.

The 2000s[edit]

In the early 21st century Žilnik continued making features on analog and digital video, now turning his gaze to the postsocialist condition, particularly the fate of workers in turbo capitalism. His first standout work in this new century was a trilogy of films made about a Roma man named Kenedi, who moves between Germany and Serbia in search of a better life. This trilogy comprises Kenedi Goes Back Home, made in 2003; the short-length Kenedi, Lost and Found, made in 2005; and Kenedi is Getting Married, made in 2007. The series represents the rare, deep and sensitive chronicling of the lives of Roma people by a major director in East Europe. In Kenedi, Žilnik found his most vivid protagonist and the most magnetic performer in a career full of individuals playing versions of themselves to his camera. Žilnik followed the Kenedi trilogy with a major dissection of capitalism run wild in Serbia, including close examinations of factory workers’ protests and the position of anarchists in this volatile social mixture. This film is titled The Old School of Capitalism, made in 2009, and it is storytelling on an ambitious scale for Žilnik, who more regularly concentrates an intimate view on a few key individuals and plot lines. The Old School of Capitalism brought Žilnik back to the front lines of political action in Serbia and revealed him to be at the forefront of his European peers in his unique brand of independent, engaged hybrid nonfiction work.

In 2015 Žilnik made his late career masterpiece, the feature Logbook_Serbistan. This film investigated the mass movement of peoples from the Middle East and North Africa through the Balkan corridor en route to West Europe in desperate search of peace and prosperity. The subject had been treated by many European directors around the height of this humanitarian crisis, but few with the care, generosity, modesty, and spirit that Žilnik offered. It is a model for contemporary forms of activist cinema and a monument to humanity, with both the best and worst that it is capable of. Žilnik’s most recent feature film, The Most Beautiful Country in the World, made in Austria in 2018, is a continuation of his study of modern migration, this time taking a look at what happens when these new European citizens reach their preferred destinations. This newest work shows Žilnik still dedicated, still inquisitive, and still concerned about what it means to be a citizen of the world in the 21st century.


Since the beginning of the 2000s Žilnik’s body of work has been showcased in numerous tributes and retrospectives: Diagonale Film Festival in Graz, Austria in 2003, Huesca Film Festival in Spain in 2003, Arsenal in Berlin, Germany in 2010, Thessaloniki Film Festival in Greece in 2012 and CINUSP in Sao Paolo in Brasil in 2014. More recently, the major international presentation that brought Žilnik back to prominence and introduced him to a new generation of cinephiles was at Doclisboa in Portugal in 2015. This near-complete career retrospective was the most rigorous attempt to present the entirety of Žilnik’s body of work and to contextualise him in the landscape of European documentary directors and the history of nonfiction cinema. In 2017 Žilnik traveled to the United States for major presentations of his work at Anthology Film Archives in New York and at Harvard Film Archive, which were his first significant solo shows in North America. Also in 2017 Žilnik was given a career retrospective at Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina, and following that in 2018 he returned to South America for a retrospective organised by Cinemateca Argentina. In 2019 Žilnik was given a major career retrospective at Centre Pompidou in Paris, which included a commission for a new work. Near the end of 2019 Žilnik was also given a late-career survey at Close-Up Film Centre in London.

In the ensuing years of the 21st century Žilnik has found new appreciation in the world of visual arts, with his films and videos regularly included in international exhibitions and biennials. The summit of this new activity was when Žilnik was given a major career retrospective at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art in Oldenburg, Germany. This exhibition, titled Želimir Žilnik, Shadow Citizens, was organised in 2018 by the curatorial collective WHW, and it also included a commission for a new work titled Among the People: Life and Acting, which was a self-examination of Žilnik’s career through the recollections of actors and other collaborators. After the Oldenburg run the show traveled to Zagreb, Croatia at Gallery Nova. In 2019 a monograph was published in a dual-language German/English edition under the same title of the exhibition, which anthologized old and new critical writing on Žilnik.


Selected shorts and medium-length films[edit]

Selected feature-length films[edit]


  1. ^ "Old School Capitalism: An Interview with Zelimir Zilnik". Cineaste Magazine. Retrieved 2020-05-05.
  2. ^ "Old School Capitalism: An Interview with Zelimir Zilnik". Cineaste Magazine. Retrieved 2020-05-05.

External links[edit]