Interview with Želimir Žilnik, Winner of Belgrade Victor for Outstanding Contribution to Cinema

Želimir Žilnik, one of the most prolific directors of Serbian cinema, is this year's winner of the Belgrade Victor for Outstanding Contribution to Cinema, which will be presented to him at the 52nd international film festival FEST (from 23 February to 3 March). Žilnik is considered the founder of Serbian and Yugoslav modernist cinema, and in his almost six-decade-long career, hemade around 60 films.
We spoke to director Želimir Žilnik about the Belgrade Victor award, the recognition season for decades of work, plans, domestic film production and more for the FEST website.

As the Belgrade Victor is an award for outstanding contribution to cinema, and not for a lifetime's work, can we, at least as FEST devotees, hope that for you it is not just another award among the many you have received, but that it will have a special meaning?

In recent years, numerous invitations for guest appearances at university film departments in the USA, as well as several large retrospectives in Europe, have taken up a lot of my time. TheVictor seems like an invitation - forget past glories, gather a crew, shoot something new. I was very happy with the news that the Belgrade Victor will also be awarded to my colleague Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker whose work I greatly appreciate, and I hope that this gesture of FEST will also be an incentive for the audience to get to know his fascinating works.

When you became the editor of Youth Tribune after secondary school, did you believe that the ‘love’ adventure between you and moving pictures could last more than six decades?

My youthful commitment to painting brought me to the engagement at the Youth Tribune in Novi Sad: Milan Konjović presented me with an award at the provincial annual exhibition. Although it seemed to me at the time that painting was my way into the world of visual arts, already in the first few weeks of editorial work, the most interesting guests and interlocutors were Živojin Pavlović, Dušan Makavejev, Bora Ćosić and Branko Vučićević. They set the bar high, it was a challenge for me to reach it. That adventure continues. During the last decade, in accordance with the global trend of fusion of essay film, video and experimental film with multidisciplinary programmes of museums and art galleries, more and more often my works are part of this new eco-system of exhibition practices. For me and the closest circle of collaborators, that unexpected sub-adventure - close collaboration with curatorial teams and with visual artists around the world (USA, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Singapore, Turkey, etc.) opens up new fields of creativity and challenges. The latest project in which I am participating with one work is the ‘Disobedience Archive’ curated by Marco Scotini - a group exhibition included in the official selection of this year's Venice Art Biennale (60th International Art Exhibition of la Biennale di Venezia).

To assume that when you wove the quote ‘I go to the pub, I get drunk and make a mess’ in the ‘Newsreel on Village Youth in Winter’ you could expect it to be relevant even after half a century. How do you perceive the fact that this line is actively used even today on social networks, as a comment on certain situations?

It is an example of the power and magic of the authentic presentation of images and words in a documentary film. Many of us recognized the impressiveness of that method of work even when we were young seeing French films of the cinéma vérité documentary style. It does not surprise me that it occasionally happens that young filmmakers, who have used the mentioned line in various sampled versions, choose exactly that approach for their work they post on TikTok or YouTube.

You are one of the younger representatives of the Black Wave, and along with Pavlović, Makavejev, Saša Petrović, you played a significant role in that era of our cinema. How do you look today at the ‘task’ that fell to you as one of the filmmakers of the New Yugoslav Film at the time?

Unexpectedly, in the summer of 1968, I received an offer from Avala Film to make my debut feature film. At that moment in my filmography, I had only four short films, fairly successful ones (‘The Unemployed’ won the Grand Prix at the Oberhausen Festival, at that time the most important European short and documentary film festival, and at the March Festival in Belgrade, the film you mentioned in the previous question was awarded, as well as the film ‘Little Pioneers’). When we were casting and choosing crew members for ‘Early Works’, the key people were between 22 and 26 years old. We were all debutantes. The first thing I said to them was: ‘We have to make a film that neither visually nor dramaturgically resembles Mako's and Žika's films.’ If nothing else, it seems that we have fulfilled that ‘task’.

After returning from emigration, with your films you anticipated political and socialchanges, wartime and the role of Milošević in all of that, but also ‘precisely captured the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia’. What do you consider the most controversial period of your career?

When I returned from Germany - having made eight documentaries and one feature film there - it was not easy to continue working in Yugoslavia, keeping silent that the censorship there banned my documentary ‘Public Execution’ and suspended the cinema distribution of the feature film ‘Paradise. An Imperialist Tragicomedy’. Just as in Germany I did not mention that my films had been stigmatized in our country since 1971, so after returning to the country I did not mention the German bans. I got my first opportunity to work as a director at the Serbian National Theatre, where in 1977 ‘The Gastarbeiter Opera’ (written in collaboration with Peđa Vranešević) was put on the repertoire. Despite the good reviews and reception from the theatre audience, I did not manage to make contact with our producers, neither for documentaries nor for feature films. I went to the newly founded Television Novi Sad. They needed a programme, the director said: ‘You had "ideological mistakes", be careful what you are doing!’. However, one other question was important to me: television is watched by every family, in the countryside and in the city, by old and young people together. How do I formulate film stories that will be acceptable to that huge audience of million viewers and at the same time remain consistent with my principles, without destroying innovation, criticism and irony? Fortunately, there I met great directors of photography, Ljuba Bečejski and Arpad Nemet, and a little later Miša Milošević, and together we managed to make ten feature-length TV dramas for TV Novi Sad and TV Belgrade. The topics we dealt with in those projects were in collision with the mainstream of the time (both in television and in film production) and they are certainly the basis from which the methodology by which we made several controversial films during the wartime nineties that you mention was created.

As one of the founders of the documentary drama genre, and on the other hand, a pioneer of the feature-documentary structure method, which was an innovative approach at the time, and is often used now, what advice would you give to young filmmakers? In your opinion, at what level is Serbian production today, when new technology has made it possible to make films even without kilometers of film tape?

Digital technology in the production and post-production of video content of all kinds, as well as the transition to digital distribution on online platforms and in regular cinemas is a great
civilizational leap for us who are in the film business. This technological revolution has truly democratized the medium of film to an enormous extent. Production in all parts of the world,
including the Third World countries, has increased tenfold compared to the period of just two or three decades ago. It goes without saying that this technological advance has, unfortunately, also enabled the production of huge quantities of moving images loaded with kitsch, banality, and propaganda. With manipulations and lies, whose goal is only to ‘lull or inflame’ the masses.
However, quality, thought-provoking, critical, romantic and tender films are still being made. In Serbia, but also in the surrounding countries with which fruitful co-production cooperation has been achieved, thanks to our agile production companies that manage to work in extremely difficult circumstances, cinema is constantly evolving. I do not hesitate to say that the recent films of domestic filmmakers (such as Ognjen Glavonjić, Mladen Kovačević, Mila Turajlić, Nataša Urban, Tea Kovač, Siniša Cvetić, the Matija Gluščević and Dušan Zorić tandem, to mention only a few) are on par with significant films of European and global cinema that I see at international festivals. I am looking forward to the fact that the 52nd FEST will be an opportunity to premiere three domestic films in the Main Competition Programme, by Mladen Đorđević, Siniša Cvetić and Marko Đorđević.


Ministry of Culture
Grad Beograd


Knjaz Miloš
Italijanski kulturni centra