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Banner stills L to R: 10 Minutes Older, courtesy Riga Film Museum; Black Film, courtesy Želimir Žilnik; 235 000 000, courtesy Riga Film Museum

Black Film (Crni film)
Želimir Žilnik, Serbia, 1971, 16 mm transfer to BetaSP, 14 minutes

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Still from Black Film, courtesy Želimir Žilnik

Even within the context of the Yugoslav Black Wave, Želimir Žilnik’s (b. 1942) Black Film is unusual for the direct and spontaneous approach that its creator took to draw attention to a major social problem. As the filmmaker’s site describes the film, “One night, Žilnik picks up a group of homeless men from the streets of [the Serbian city of] Novi Sad and takes them home. While they enjoy themselves in his home, the filmmaker tries to ‘solve the problem of the homeless’ carrying along a film camera as a witness. He speaks to social workers, ordinary people. He even addresses policemen. They all close their eyes to the ‘problem.’”

Having tragically lost both of his parents as a baby to Nazi persecutions of Communists during World War II, Žilnik was trained as a lawyer and began his filmmaking career first as an amateur and then as an assistant to Dušan Makavejev. He started making short, socially concerned documentaries in 1967, examining such familiar topics of the genre as rural poverty, child welfare, and unemployment. Like many members of his generation, he was radicalized (and subsequently disappointed) by the global unrest of 1968, which in Yugoslavia saw student demonstrations in Belgrade and other cities and later that year brought the Soviet incursion into Czechoslovakia, which Žilnik has described as “an event more influential than what 9/11 is to the United States in the Proletarian Internationalism of the time.”

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Still from Black Film, courtesy Želimir Žilnik

Black Film seems to reveal—as does Žilnik’s Black Film Manifesto, [1] quoted above—the filmmaker’s heightened sense at that time of personal commitment to social change, expressed through his act of bringing home (to his wife’s dismay) half a dozen homeless men. This sense of personal responsibility and insistence on the right to ask questions went hand in hand with placing demands on Communist authorities, who, in the early 1970s, redoubled their efforts to institute “ideological unity” in the country, which Žilnik saw as a process of “redogmatising” society. [2] Facing censorship of his films, he left Yugoslavia for Germany in the mid-1970s, returning by the end of the decade to go on to a successful career in both television and film.

Perhaps most remarkable about Black Film is its open-endedness—according to Žilnik, the idea for the film came together the day before shooting began, and the end of the film reveals no solutions to the problem of homelessness. Practically, this was possible because of the Neoplanta Film Studio, a remarkable state-funded alternative space that was run as a cooperative and enabled filmmakers to work on short films in a truly experimental mode.[3] Žilnik was one of the studio’s earliest participating documentarians, as was Karpo Godina, who served as the cameraman on Black Film (as well as several other films directed by Žilnik) and whose own directorial experiments, such as Litany of Happy People), also pushed the documentary form in new directions. Yet another example of Neoplanta’s output can be found in the present series in the film White People which was produced by the OHO artist group.

Conceptually, as Žilnik has explained at a Flaherty NYC screening of his films, Black Film took the form it did in recognition of the “questions of manipulation [that] are . . . inherent in the film medium,” a concern in response to which he experimented with the total transparency of the creative process in Black Film. Because of this, according to Žilnik, Black Film “was hated not only by the media and some politicians, but also by his colleagues who accused the film of opening too much in terms of discussion and the social order, and revealing too much of the hidden side of the filmmaking profession.” For his part, to stress that he was, indeed, critiquing his profession, Žilnik included at the end of the film a “proclamation” that “the film is about the position of filmmakers and intellectuals, who although they pretend that they are changing the society and helping people, are actually not doing anything but making films.”[4] Judging by the subject matter of his most recent film, Žilnik continues to this day to struggle with the questions of how art might best intervene in politics.  — Ksenya Gurshtein

With thanks to Želimir Žilnik, Sarita Matijevic, and Sarie Horowitz at the Flaherty Seminar for their assistance with research and for making a screening of this film possible in Washington.

 

1. Želimir Žilnik, “Black Film Manifesto,” in As Soon as I Open My Eyes I See a Film: Experiment in the Art of Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s, ed. Ana Janevski (Warsaw, 2010), 243–44. (back to top)

2. Lorraine Mortimer, Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (Minneapolis, 2009), 18. On this topic, see also Boris Buden, “Shoot It Black! An Introduction to Želimir Žilnik,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry 25 (2010): 38–47. (back to top)

3. For more on Žilnik’s biography and Neoplanta, see Lena Kilkka Mann, “The Provocative Želimir Žilnik: From Yugoslavia’s Black Wave to Germany’s RAF,” Südslavistik Online 2 (May 2010): 37. (back to top)

4. For more on the self-critical aspect of Black Film as a response to the Black Wave, see Lena Kilkka Mann, “The Provocative Želimir Žilnik: From Yugoslavia’s Black Wave to Germany’s RAF,” Südslavistik Online 2 (May 2010), 44–45. (back to top)