Janko Baljak’s documentary tracks Zelimir Zilnik’s eclectic big-screen career
Dir/scr: Janko Baljak. Serbia 2021. 91 minutes
A major figure in European filmmaking for over half a century belatedly gets his documentary due in Janko Baljak’s Journal About Zelimir Zilnik (ZZZ, short for Zurnal o Zelimiru Zilniku.) Cramming a bewilderingly profilic and eclectic big-screen career into just 91 minutes, this film breaks no new ground stylicstically, but works well as a primer for those unfamiliar with Zilnik’s output. Even seasoned cinephiles are often in need of such an introduction, the Yugoslavia-born Serb having seldom enjoyed the international acclaim of his so-called ’Black Wave’ peers such as Dusan Makavejev and Goran Paskaljevic.
An indefatigable septuagenarian of twinkling good humour and empathetic personal warmth
The great exception to this came in 1969 when Zilnik’s debut feature Early Works landed the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, a year in which fellow competitors included Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Saura, Bellocchio, Bertolucci and Satyajit Ray. Despite this blazing arrival onto the world cinema scene, Zilnik has never exactly been a favourite among the programmers of major festivals. Baljak’s somewhat sugared pill, with its near wall-to-wall score by Predrag Vranesevic, will likely prove relatively palatable for curators of festivals and platforms specialising in cinema-related themes.
Always marked by passionate political engagement, staunch anti-capitalism, a close interest in the marginalised sectors of society and an ornery unwillingness to compromise in any way, Zilnik is sometimes lazily described as the Ken Loach of the Balkans. He has rowed his own boat, an activity he is seen performing in ZZZ’s lyrical opening shot, sometimes against stiff ideological currents. Still very much active in his 79th year, Zilnik has enjoyed increasing attention and acclaim in the the last half-decade or so, and this documentary may well spark interest in further overdue retrospectives around the globe.
As edited by Aleksandra Milovanovic, ZZZ is an approximately chronological guide to Zilnik’s career with his longtime partner Sarita Matijevic Zilnik credited with “research and selection of archive materials”. Biographical details (including the astonishing, tragic circumstances of his birth and infancy) are only lightly touched upon. Instead emphasis is placed on Zilnik’s approach to work and his self-effacing but chummily genial personality. The emergence of the director nationally and internationally takes up a considerable chunk of the running-time; that Golden Bear success appears fractionally before the half-way mark.
There is, conversely, relatively little about his output in the 2000s and 2010s — zero mention is made of Kenedi Hasani, the non-pro Roma performer with whom Zilnik made a trio of award-winning films between 2003 and 2007. The collaborator most prominent here is Karpo Godina (himself a director of international significance) — the cinematographer of Early Works and its ill-fated follow-up Freedom Or Cartoons, whose production was halted midstream in 1972 by official command.
A running element of ZZZ focuses on Zilnik’s attempts to track down and resume work on this film, aided by Godina and others. Indeed, Bokan and Milovanovic perhaps err in giving excessive screen-time to an unfinished project, while they elect to skip over or even omit existing works in Zilnik’s filmography. An exception is his classic 1975 short Inventory, shot immediately after he relocated to Munich in considerable economic desperation, extracts from which are shown as Zilnik revisits the apartment-building where it was made.
Sufficient glimpses of these wonderful original films are included to give the viewer a workable sense of his approach and unadorned style, and to whet the appetite his somewhat scattered and elusive catalogue (to the consternation of hardcore Zilnik-philes very few of the works have ever been available in home-viewing formats.)
But the real star of the show here is Zilnik himself, an indefatigable septuagenarian of twinkling good humour and empathetic personal warmth. His energy, usually kept in careful reserve, bursts forth most vividly in the numerous instances when he is captured acting as his own clapperboard in archive behind-the-scenes footage — leaping athletically into shot after shot, and in one amusing instance almost ending up in a circus campfire due to sheer boisterous exuberance.
Production company: Arbos
International sales: Arbos, Novi Sad (email@example.com)
Producer: Sinisa Bokan
Editing: Aleksandra Milovanovic
Cinematography: Jovan Milinov
Music: Predrag Vranesevic