e-flux: How Not to Miss an Appointment with History, Boris Buden

How Not to Miss an Appointment with History

Boris Buden

Preface to the English edition of Boris Buden, Past: An Introduction to a Problem—Želimir Žilnik on Film, Communism, and the Former Yugoslavia (kuda.org, Iskra Books, and Mama, Multimedia Institute, 2024).


Even if this book is not primarily about the filmmaker Želimir Žilnik and his films, he is its protagonist, coauthor, and its original inspiration. So, the English-speaking audience should first get an idea about who he actually is. Let us dare to answer directly: he is the most important filmmaker of the former Yugoslavia. This will surely sound like an exaggeration to many. Nevertheless, it makes sense if we don’t misunderstand what is meant by “the most important.” First of all, this does not have to imply some sort of ranking. The idea of a hierarchical list with its top and bottom positions secured completely misses the point here. “Importance” does not necessarily evoke a canon of values or masters. On the contrary, Žilnik is important, the most important, precisely because his life and work resist any attempt at canonization. In his case, moreover, the usual conceptions of professional, cultural, or historical orientation prove equally misleading. Admittedly, this whole book was written to make such an orientation impossible. The ideas of film as art, of professional filmmaking, or of a film industry, but also notions like communism, totalitarianism, freedom, including the freedom of art, etc., won’t help us to put filmmaker Želimir Žilnik in his proper place on any list, however neutral or objective it might be. To put it briefly, this book cannot and will not spare its readers from the demanding labor of comprehension or the challenge of one’s own self-orientation. It offers no way of avoiding the difficult and often traumatic encounter with irreducible differences, cultural, political, historical, ideological, moral … and, last but not least, linguistic. This book is, indeed, a translation.

But let’s start with the basics: at the age of twenty-seven Želimir Žilnik won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the 19th Berlin International Film Festival for Early Works, his first feature film. It was 1969 and he won in competition with Godard, Fassbinder, Schlesinger, de Palma, etc. Curiously, he was not even a professionally trained film director. In fact, he was a lawyer who had started making films as an amateur only a few years earlier. Yet by the time of his huge success in Berlin he was an internationally recognized film author whose first short documentaries won prominent awards such as the Grand Prix at the Short Film Festival in Germany’s Oberhausen.

At this point one may expect to place an interruption in the story of Žilnik’s professional development and mention his conflict with the communist system of the former Yugoslavia. While this conflict was real—it was caused by the regime’s attempts to censor his films and prevent their public distribution, which subsequently resulted in his emigration to West Germany in the early 1970s—our present day understanding of this conflict would almost necessarily mistake its true nature. This is the precise point at which this book matters. It has set itself the task of deconstructing the dominant post- and anti-communist narrative about the communist past, which not only obscures this past, but rather destroys any possibility of creating a historical experience out of it. In fact, we all know this narrative very well. Moreover, we have learned it by heart and even come to mistake it for common sense. So it almost goes without saying: Žilnik, a brave, freedom-loving artist, was a victim of communist totalitarianism where there was no freedom of art and no freedom at all, which is why he voluntarily chose the fate of a dissident moving to the free world to enjoy all the benefits and perks of an actually existing Western democracy. The story might even end here. The rest, at least after 1989, is, as they say, history.

But what if the reality was quite different? And what if we are unable today to recognize this difference, to deal with it critically, and to incorporate its meaning into our historical experience? To repeat: into our historical experience! Not into the past. Our past as we know it would not stand for such difference anyway.

What was this reality that makes a difference and finds no place in our picture of the past? Let us take the notion of communism. In an April 1968 interview Žilnik explains why he makes movies: “I make movies because we’re still not in communism. I make movies to warn about how many things we still need to do in order to get there.”1 The title of the interview is also telling: “Art Film Does Not Interest Me.” These few words take us immediately into a realm radically different from the discourse on the freedom of art and totalitarianism. It is, moreover, a realm that escapes the logic of artistic values and can’t be easily subsumed under the concept of art history or film-as-art-history and their canonizations. The brutal truth is simple and is an offense to all who cannot get past the idea of art as an autonomous sphere of human activity: Žilnik is an artist because he is a communist. This still has one further consequence for his own way of art- and film-making.

Film scholar Pavle Levi relates Žilnik’s film practice to Karl Marx’s famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach. It reads: “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Žilnik, he claims, understood this in the sense that “the filmmakers … have only reproduced (represented) the world, in various ways; the point is, however, to produce it.”2 This, in a very concrete manner, reconceptualizes the relation between the filmmaker and the world he films, including the role of his protagonists and of the camera itself. The latter, far from simply depicting the world as it is, intervenes actively in this world, challenges the status quo, mobilizes latent human capacities, generates new social bonds, and so reshapes the social fabric of the reality in which it is deployed. In Žilnik’s hands, a camera is not a means of art production that shall, when properly used in a social situation, produce aesthetic effects and, in addition, transform this social situation. For him society is not simply an object before the lens; it is the camera’s means of production.

This is also the reason that Žilnik, when shooting documentaries, never hides the camera. On the contrary. All involved in filming should be aware of its presence, so as to actively react to it and cocreate the picture the camera makes of them. The fact that this implies a conscious move away from the position of an individual film author to a socially formative collaboration should be a matter of course. In the 1968 interview mentioned above, Žilnik defines documentary film as a possibility given to people of all sorts directly to express “the pain that sits in one’s stomach,” a pain genuinely social, which is why it cannot be reduced to “their own private thing.” The film director is a sort of technical assistant in the social production of film. In Žilnik’s own words, it is all about “the sensitivity of the silver bromide to light, and nearly all the rest I leave up to the characters that my documentaries are concerned with.”3

One could continue this discussion of Želimir Žilnik’s particular film idiom and reflect further upon the influence on him of the materialist aesthetic tradition and Marxism in general, but this is not what this book aims to do. It does not want to extract an aesthetic or ideological essence from his work, nor does it try to historicize an exclusively professional part of his life. It rather evokes the totality of his life and work however contingent, fragmented, contradictory, and even paradoxical it may be.

Take again Žilnik’s experience of communism. It can neither be reduced to an external ideological influence, nor to a temporally and geographically limited historical context. Rather it is constitutive of his entire cinematic oeuvre. It is, moreover, constitutive of his most existential experience of life. Žilnik was practically born in a Gestapo-run prison. It was in the year 1942 in the Serbian city of Niš. His mother, a student of philosophy, was a member of the illegal Communist Party. Shortly after giving birth to him, she was executed. His father, a Slovenian communist, was caught and decapitated as a partisan in 1944 by the Serbian anti-communist Chetniks, Nazi collaborators.

It seems impossible to keep these two stories apart, the one about the personal and professional life of a filmmaker and the other about the history of communism as an ideology and political practice. Indeed, in this book the personal is historical as much as the historical is personal. The same is true of Žilnik’s films. It is impossible to detach them from the historical reality in which they were made and from the lives of those who made them. This is literally so: many protagonists of his films in fact play themselves; that is to say, one cannot differentiate their fictional roles from their real selves. The one who in Žilnik’s Kenedi Trilogy performs the role of a migrant is in his real life a migrant. Žilnik, who, in his famous Black Film (1971) tells the story about a filmmaker who wants to change the world with his films, plays this filmmaker himself and demonstrates in his own existential situation, concretely in his own apartment and within his own family, how the film fails to solve the problem of homeless people. In addition, he publishes a manifesto that makes out of this failure an aesthetic statement and social critique, one inseparable from the other.

As we said earlier, this book is not primarily about the life and work of a filmmaker. It is about the past, a dimension not so much of historical temporality as of our existence, which has gained in importance over the last several decades to such an extent that it has come to dominate the entire experience of our being in the world. The past has occupied our thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. Not even our utopian imagination has been spared. It has become much easier for us to imagine a better past than a better future.

But what exactly is this past? Is it “a foreign country,” as British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley once wrote? This would indeed apply to this book. Not only is it largely about a foreign country; it is about a country that itself belongs to the past, the socialist Yugoslavia that fell apart in the bloody wars of the 1990s. The book tells the story of that country, of its short but fascinating life, as well as of its confused afterlife, haunted by the ghosts of the past. And it tells this story through the life and work of Želimir Žilnik, partly through his own testimonies. Taking all of this into account, this book is neither about a former country, nor about a person. It is not even about the past. Instead, it is a critique of the past, a critique of the idea of the past as an endless accumulation of historical facts and cultural values, a sort of inexhaustible resource from which we can arbitrarily extract the raw material for any purpose of our own, but before all, as the case is today, for constructing our identities.

The story of Želimir Žilnik and his filmmaking, inseparable from the ever-changing historical conditions in which it has been taking place and is now being told, is in itself such a critique of the past—in the name of historical experience. It evokes the meaning of the German phrase “Erfahrung machen,” which closely links the notion of experience and the verb “to make.” One cannot simply experience something, or just have an experience; one has to make it. It is in this sense that we can say: as far as Žilnik is a filmmaker, he is at the same time an experience maker, a maker of historical experience, his own and, in his films, a shared one.

It is in this sense that the entire story about Želimir Žilnik and his films may in fact not really belong in the history of cinema—as far as this history is, as Godard once put it, that of a missed rendezvous with the history of its century. In Žilnik’s case such an appointment seems not to have been missed. This could explain why it is so difficult, if not altogether impossible, to find a proper place for him and his oeuvre in the canons of film history. At the same time, this could make the case for why he should still be important, or most important, to this same history of cinema.

Finally, and once again: this book is a translation. It was originally written not only in another language, but also for a different audience. Now it matters not which language or what audience. Both are preserved and perceptible in the book in what its English reader won’t be able to escape—a difficult, arduous, and often awkward encounter with the strange and the foreign. This, however, is unavoidable and at the same time indispensable if the reader wishes not to miss their appointment with history.




Quoted in Shadow Citizens: Želimir Žilnik, ed. What, How & for Whom/WHW (Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art and Sternberg Press, 2019), 9.


Shadow Citizens, 97.


Shadow Citizens, 9.


Boris Buden is a writer, cultural theorist, and translator. Born in the former Yugoslavia, he studied philosophy in Zagreb and cultural theory at Humboldt University in Berlin. Since the beginning of the 1980s he has published essays and books on critical and cultural theory, psychoanalysis, politics, and contemporary art in Croatian, German, and English. He teaches at universities in Europe and lectures worldwide. Buden is a permanent fellow at the European Institute of Progressive Cultural Policies in Vienna and currently lives in Berlin.

Ilustration: Back cover of Boris Buden, Past: An Introduction to a Problem—Želimir Žilnik on Film, Communism, and the Former Yugoslavia (kuda.org, Iskra Books and Mama, Multimedia Institute, 2024).