From James Dean to Che Guevara

The "Week of the Young Film" of  the  [1969] Berlinale festival [was] dedicated to Yugoslavia. Here the directors Djordjevic ("A Serbian Dream"), Pavlovic ("The Rats Are Awaking") and Makavejev ("Innocence without Protection") found international recognition. The [German] ARD-TV [public television] [had] presented already  [at the time of this interview]  three Yugoslav films; six others [were] to follow. [...] 
While the [...] the [German] Second Public Television Program ZDF had presented the young Canadian film the year before, this year the ARD  programing editors were responsible for viewing [and selecting] the latest Yugoslav productions in Berlin. In a leaflet [...] [made available during the Berlinale] an interview [was] published which is here in part [translated and re-] published. In the talks participated Franz EVERSCHOR and  Heinz UNGUREIT (both members of the "ARD Filmredaktion") as well as,  from Yugoslavia,  Ante PETERLIC (critic, director), Bogdan TIRNANIC (critic, assistant director), and Boro DRASKOVIC (director).

Q: During the last two years we have shown in West Germany films by Djordjevic, Pavlovic and Makavejev which were much noted; in Berlin, at the film festivals, too. How do you see that development, as younger critics, directors, and authors that form indeed already a new generation in the wake of Djordjevic and Makavevej? Has by now phase one been concluded? Or do you want to develop consistently what has been, up to now, achieved?

Peterlic: The authors  mentioned as well as some others have solved several problems our cinematography had to deal with previously,  problems that have hindered film in this country for fully two decades.

The films and authors you mention have cleaned up the past and put an end to an unfortunate development. The younger directors go on in that way. They make their films even more personal. So maybe there begins only now in the full sense of the word a phase of the Yugoslav film which means complete freedom of all those vitally interested in film as art.

Novakovic: The break-through of the new way in the Yugoslav cinema began in the early sixties. I believe that in 1961 the first real change took place. It was effected by two films, "Two" by Aleksandar Petrovic and "Dance in the Rain" by Bostan Hladnik. They for the first time turned to the intimate world of their heroes in a cinematography which up to that moment had been much too official and much too concerned with a specific social position, thus basically describing the situation of man in a false fashion. [Editor's note: Like Peterlic, Novakovic seems to plead for an intimate, individualistic cinema understood as art and nothing but art that possibly would turn a blind eye to the contradictions of society. This was an almost unavoidable response perhaps, in view of  the official demands of a state bureaucracy interested in preserving the stereotypes of good and evil connected with the genre of the partisan film. Of course, glorifying the Titoists' World War II resistance against German fascism helped avoid questions about the all but acceptable present. The individualistic revolt, as Novakovic at least seems to have embraced it,  tended to base itself on a view of man that assumed anthropological constants and thus was deeply a-historic. Small wonder that in a Cold War context such positions kindled hopes in the West that the bureaucratic "socialism" of Yugoslavia could be replaced, sooner or later, by a "free market economy." To fan the wind of change -  in the cultural arena, above all - was thus part of the political game.]

In 1962, an important film was turned out, with the title "The Waterdrop Warriors"; it was done by Beograd film amateurs.
This was the first Yugoslav film made outside a film company, a film whose authors could do what according to their own judgement was thought right. 
[Editor's note: While bureaucratic socialism restricted the freedom needed by film-makers, this obviously was done, despite the existence of censorship,  primarily in the same context that we experience in the West. The film studio or for that matter, the television chain that orders a given work, tells the filmmaker what is acceptable and what is not. Or, worse yet, they don't offer him work, again. (In the West, this goes as far as inofficial blacklisting, at times.) In so far, to opt out of the studio system was an emancipative act. But even a 16mm film, for a lot of people,  is not cheap. Who could afford (and who could afford a camera) it if not, by and large,  the children of what Zilnik has called the "red bourgeoisie"?] 
They paid no attention to the censors [who didn't intervene or ban their works, it seems] nor to various instances of official advice that could have watered down their ideas. 

The third event occured in 1963. That year, the festival of experimental film took place in Zagreb where, for the first time, the limits between "professional" and "amateur" film were abandoned. The main attention was directed to purely experimental expression. 
[Editor's note:  The destruction of that artificial separation and the dismantling of the ideology of professionalism (so attached to that of expertship and related market value) was a progressive act.  The choice to value only, or mainly, formal experimentation was not. But we know that, from the New American Cinema of the early 60s to the Cinema Indipendente Italiano, to Nekes, Dore O., or Wiborny in Germany, experimentalism was experiencing its heydays, once more, in the 60s.  It was a counter-reaction, and necessary perhaps. Its impulses could be felt in more committed, more vital art, as well. Zagreb,  in the 60s, was not the center of this movement, by the way; it echoed developments abroad. Still,  it seems to have been the culturally most vibrant town in Yugoslavia, at the time; it was here, by the way,  that the philosophical review Praxis was published which advocated a Yugoslav version of socialisme autogestionaire! It is only the more strange that narrow nationalism should triumph here later on, certainly in conjunction with a like development in Beograd. In the new context, the Yugoslav cinema that was so vivid and important in the sixties and early seventies is now practically dead, and no Serbian or Croatian cinema worth speaking of seems to have followed in its footsteps.]

These three elements were of decisive importance for our cinematography. In this way the cornerstone of the new Yugoslav film was set.

Q.: What was it that lead to the changes in these years? Which motives were essential in this respect?

Novakovic: Two currents have effected it. The Yugoslav documentary film with authors like Skanata, Strbac (most of our authors previously were documentary filmers, like Makavejev, Petrovic, Nimica, Djordjevic) began to speak truthfully, realistically and immediately about life, and took a critical stance towards reality. But our amateur film was hardly less important for the [new development of] Yugoslav cinematography.

From the ranks of the amateurs came Dusan Makavejev, Zivojin Pavlovic, Zelimir Zilnik, Losan Zafranovic, Vladimir Petek, Mihovil Panskini, Kab Acimovic-Godina. Essentially it is only now that this generation of film amateurs is attaining full maturity. I don't want to speak in detail about the significance of the films done by Makavejev, Mimica, Palovic, Zilnik or Berkovic. I only want to make some general remarks.

These films are in the first place characterized by a critical relation towards reality [the necssary, positive, emancipatory aspect of the new development], secondly by a turn towards individual human fate [the anti-Brechtian, backward, bourgeois ideological aspect of the 'new turn' (but of course, this was not shared by all of the new filmmakers, certainly not by the better ones, like Zilnik or Petrovic)]. Furthermore, they are films which look at life as something most complex. And these directors do not at all intend to put before us certain formulas or specific instructions; rather, they leave the spectator the liberty to decipher the contents of the films himself [which is hardly leading to concise insights to be 'deciphered' by the spectator -  if the claim that 'life is complex' hides the failure of the filmmaker to analyse the reality he is confronted with]. Therefore, the films often trigger polemics and often they are understood in entirely different ways. 
[Editor's note: I remember that in Germany, in the late 60s, Brecht's "Galilei" was understood by some academic readers as a plea to be clever and save your skin (when Galilei renounces his empirical observations and theoretical insights before the inquisition), while others put it in the context of the 20th century and the need to convince scientists that they are ethically co-responsible for the effects of their research. Obviously, the first lecture is forced upon the play, against all intentions of Brecht. - Novakovic mirrors, more or less, the position of a 'competitive' society where conflicting interests and thus, also, conflicting 'readings'  are seen as a quasi-natural fact of life. We must remind the reader, however, that in these competitive societies, which oppose the interest of the big corporations against those of the little folk, it is always one side that has the material means to field 'competing' positions in the media, or on the political stage.  And while HEINZ ketchup and ENRON may compete, in an American presidential election, the position of the little folks doesn't occur, except at most privately, in his or her own kitchen or bedroom... Cinema, as any other art, cannot be oblivious of this fact. Openess is beautiful, the questioning of established truths is necessary, but the ideology which embraces such bonmots as "ehhhmmmm - life is complex' and  "we cannot explain anything," "we leave it to the viewer" etc.  does not further the enlightenment and emancipation of the viewer. His moral obligation to think for himself notwithstanding.] 
Some, for instance, are of the opinion that Makavejev glorifies socialism [which was simply not true at the time], others find that he derides socialism [which was equally wrong because his sharp-focused criticism of the broken promises and scandalous contradictions of Yugoslav "socialism" presupposed a socialist vision, a desire for a better, juster, much more equal and much freer society; Novakovic's way of rejoicing in view of a wrongly supposed simplistic  "ambivalence" that gave rise to opposing views ("either it's  this or that") seems to embrace the notion of ambiguity for its own sake; it is here that a well-grounded analysis of the 'complexities' of the point(s) of view of  Makavejev's films at the time would be warranted].   With regard to the films of this author [i.e. Novakovich], the same holds true. In short, our directors have rejected the official explanations of an official ideology by turning towards the true current of life.

Q.: Does that mean for you a rejection of ideology as such, also of Socialism and Marxism?

Novakovic: A film does not construct a future. The job of the artist is to say the truth. Our artists find that in our society there exists a variety of problems; generally speaking, they are discontent with the society they live in. But this discontent can also be a stimulus for new progress. 

Obviously, a new generation is appearing on the stage. It brings with it, in my opinion, a new relation towards reality. If directors like Petrovic, Berkovic, and Makavejev deal with the most intimate spheres of life and problems of their heroes, the new generation turns more strongly towards the political aspects of life. The most telling film in this respect is  Zilnik's film "Early Works." In my opinion, Zilnik's film is a direct echo of the students unrest.

Q.: Here, in Beograd - or in general?

Novakovic: Here in Beograd and then, in the entire world.

Q.: Do you see each other, as you are sitting here now, as a group which has specific things in common -- concerning things political and filmic; or are there contradictions between you?

Novakovic: The affinities are diverse. The worlds of the authors are different ones. Bogdan Mihic creates film fairy tales. Zilnik does political theater. The colleague from Zagreb  (as much as the Zagreb bunch of filmmakers as a whole) concerns himself with metaphysical, abstract problems.

So their worlds are entirely different. It's the critical relation towards their object they have in common.

Peterlic: Despite very different affinities, it is nonetheless the tendency of all of us not to color  any historical, social or psychological facts of our society [in a rosy light].

Novakovic: I believe that the Yugoslav film, by growing more critical politically, starts to be in touch with international developments. I am furthermore of the opinion that the new problems in [the field of]  film can be dealt with correctly mainly by the young. It is they who are entitled to speak in the name of their generation. [Editor's note: ... Apparently they were refuting, for good reason,  the false explanations and myths of the Titoist regime while being seduced perhaps (at least in some cases) by the mythological 'images of freedom' propagated by the West.] 1960 and 1961 when the first films of intimate character originated, there still existed all over the world the myth of James Dean. Dean was the idol of a generation as a rebel without a cause [certainly without a socialist cause]. He has carried out his [supposedly "private"?] conflicts with, and inside, his family. Today, at the beginning of the seventies, the ideal of the younger generation is no longer the James Dean type, but a rebel of the type of Che Guevara, being no longer in conflict with the traditional family but with the traditional society in general. 
[Editor's note: The conflict thus seems to be: not class-society vs. classless society, but traditional against modern society. Yugoslavia, Novakovic seemed to imply at the time, must modernize; perhaps this also implied a turn towards Western liberalism, and perhaps some Yugoslav intellectuals at the time thought that it would be great if Western "late capitalism" and US-style democracy would help bring this about.  Certainly, this was not the position of Zilnik. But it is a position that has gained wide acceptance among conformist clerks, the so-called "intellectual elites,"  in many second and third world countries, ever since.]

Q.: May we perhaps continue with a question regarding Zilnik? Exactly this Che Guevara attitude, the attitude [sic!] of the permanent revolutionary, seems to be expressed in your film "Early Works," at least as a tendency. The young people attempt to make something like a revolution, as they do understand it. But in their revolutionary Odyssey through society they discover that this revolution cannot - under the given circumstances - be realized. This attitude in a film is probably new here.

Zilnik: The main difference between the films you have previously mentioned, for instance those of Djordjevic and Makavejev, and the films we make is that these directors turn to individual fates and reject the subjugation under an ideology or politics, whereas for instance in my film young people take a stance towards ideology, politics, socialism and communism  as their own problems.  They have neither the complexes nor the ambitions that [would make them admit that] anyone else could govern their fate.  Whereas for a time it was thought to be courageous to shun official phrases or Marxism as ideology, today there are no such complexes. Meanwhile you can, for instance, also make fun about it. You can do everything out of love and affection and not out of contempt.

My film shows that political revolutions today cannot be carried out by the classical means and that the political revolution is no longer meaningful, as long as it does not effect global social transformations. Changes on the verbal level do not yet imply general change.

The tragedy of the socialist revolutions [so far] lies in the fact that they are indeed successful in the area of political power;  political power structures have been changed by them. On the other side, the society in which we live remains attached to so many backward turning elements that revolutionaries in this society frequently play very comical roles. We can for instance say that the student demonstrations which took place in June 1968 in Beograd had also a tragic ending because they were radical without seriously touching the problems of this society on all levels of social and political backwardness.

Q.: How can you intervene with your film in this cumbersome conflict?

Zilnik: One of the main theses of my film is that two kinds of preconditions are necessary for a revolutionary transformation: the basis, which can no longer endure its degrading class status, and a ruling class sunken in hypocrisy. Not until both are given, can there arise a revolutionary act. Lenin, too,  knew that with uncorrect preconditions  revolutions can only be hindrances within history. With us, anyway, the preconditions were not given; therefore, the revolutionary attempts of the students bore tragi-comic traits.

During the student demonstrations, all of us [filmmakers, intellectuals, etc.] were phantastically enthusiastic about their courage to criticize, their discipline. But it became obvious that in a society which is structured in  the way that our's is, all this has not found any genuine echo [among the populace].

Q.: Do you believe that it had more justification in Paris and in West Berlin?

Zilnik: I believe that there it was already a little bit more realistic. Several slogans and several demands which we have heard of the students, do not mean anything for large circles of our society, because they still live practically under medieval conditions. In our society every transformation, every social and every socialist one, is very complicated because in this country we are practically several centuries behind.

There is, however, yet another reason why these revolutionary events are tragi-comic. The overwhelming majority of the Beograd students - about 40,000 - were lead by the main concern to avoid clashes with the police. But everyone, once he marches on towards revolution, must be aware of the possibility that there is bloodshed. My film makes clear that there is no social transformation, no revolution, without the application of force.

Q.: But - are you still convinced that the revolution is, despite all, necessary here?

Zilnik: In our situation, very clearly.  Where 40,000 young people feel the need to get into vehement conflict with the entire society, there must indeed be a justifying impulse. But the revolutionaries must reckon with victims, with the full risk of their life, which was not the case in Beograd.

Therefore, as you have seen, the sub-title of my film is the heading of an article by Lenin - On the Childhood Diseases of Marxism.

Tirmanic: The student unrests and demonstrations in Western Europe proceeded a priori from the assumption that the system as such must be fought. The students in Beograd only wanted to make the ruling [caste] aware of the self-proclaimed principles of the system which these had obviously forgotten. Therefore you can say, with Marx and Churchill, that in W. Europe every defeat is a victory. But in Beograd the students were out-tricked, and finally submitted to being deceived.

Zilnik: I am not in agreement with Tirmanic. I think that it was not only deception that the students consented to. In the film it is said that their entire act basically was too shallow, it could not intrude deep enough into the structure of society - and the film is the reflex of the society, a phantastically complicated structure. When these young people with their radicalism are confronted with this society, they hit upon a phantastic barrier of silence.

Tirmanic: I think that in the wake of Zilnik's film, the revolution on the one hand appears more senseless, but on the other, also more justified than before. Why do I believe that it is more justified? First of all, it is - in a certain sense - an educational film. For it teaches us that an existing society (no matter whether in the East or the West, no matter whether it's a Communist or a Capitalist one) cannot be changed in the way that was recommended by the people who, it is true, we love, but who have lived 100 or more years ago and whose methods are no longer applicable.

Q.: You mean, the social theories of Marx, Lenin, etc.?

Tirmanic: Lenin, Marx, yes. Accordingly, by Zilnik's film it became clear for revolutionary minded persons, too, that societies and their structures have essentially changed since Marx and Lenin. To those people occupying themselves with the film, it became clear that new methods of revolutionary transformation must be found.

What these means and methods are, in detail, I don't know. Revolution is fighting and searching - unfortunately, a matter of practice, as the existence of man is practice. We must come to practical forms, if we want to deal with revolutions. This period, which lasted all through the last summer and which has shaken all of Europe, and Zilnik's film as its reflection [Reflex], have proven that we were on the wrong track, that - surely only by way of great sacrifices - new methods must be found.

Draskovic: Always when I'm talking about Yugoslav film, there occurs to me an old proverb which says that you need a little of everything to keep a garden. Yes, in the Yugoslav garden most interesting personalities are blossoming. I believe that they will increase more and more in number,That they will be younger and younger. Freed of shame, fear, and self-censorship of any kind. I have the feeling that you cannot yet speak of an already existing form of expression or a "wave," a Yugoslav "wave." All these filmmakers are personalities, and everyone pursues his own way. They have only that much in common: as a crew, they are swimnming upstream [i.e. against the current] politically. When they are swimming downstream, then they are passive - when they are swimming upstream, then they oppose themselves to something. This is the swimming of the crew against the river.

For this generation did wake up in a world poisoned by politics [sic - the old suspicion that politics is a "field apart," to be left to the experts, the professionals, the politicians; that "we" can stay free from it, that it is dirty, that "art is another world"]. I want to say, this was a spreading disease [...and certainly the Titoist 'newspeak', no better than the propaganda of any ruling stratum, was 'poisoning' minds...],  more widespread than the Hong-kong flu. Nowadays a young man is perpetually in a position to choose [but between what? - and which choices are never realistically possible, in a society or societies where power is monopolized by the few?].  If you, in the morning, drink coffee with milk rather than black coffee, then you have chosen. You have made a political action. [Editor's note: ...which is of course nonsense: you've made a so-called consumer's choice, an apolitical choice, and as a consumer, you may tend to deceive yourself regarding your "freedom", as many of your decisions are pre-programmed by what corporations decide to push in the market, and what they take out of the market, completely. - Where for instance, can you rent Zilnik's films, or those of Straub-Huillet, Godard, Robert Kramer, in a videotheque found down the next mainstreet? Draskovic's position here seems to be that of a young apoliticized consumer who believes he is "free" of sorts if he can dress differently or make different films, films that are content to reflect his confused conceptions of reality, his "delirium"... A purposeless act, almost; perhaps poetic; perhaps intriguing. Perhaps even "mirroring", without knowing it, in its strange way an aspect of the condition of our society. But in no way elucidating. And therefore,  posing no risks to the status-quo?]

Someone has described film occasionally as a delirium before a wall. I assume you will find in the films of this young generation a [cross-(?)] section of our social delirium.

(The text, published in 1969 during the Berlinale festival and reprinted first, on June 28, 1969, by the Frankfurter Rundschau, a West German daily, is republished here - in an English translation and with many commentaries by the editor - for documentary purposes.)


It was the 1968 period (which encompasses in fact the few years that lead up to and prepared "1968") and its immediate aftermath which saw a tremendously fruitful development of the critical and anti-hegemonistic cinema in a number of countries, both in Europe and South America. It is enough to think of Bresson, Straub-Huillet, and Godard in France, of Fassbinder, Vlado Kristl, and a few others in Germany,  of Agnes Varda and Chantal Ackerman in Belgium, of Pasolini in Italy, Robert Kramer in the U.S. ...  In Chile, in Brazil, Argentine, perhaps Columbia, certainly in Yugoslavia there were similar developments.

As it were, all of these phases of an "upturn" in filmic intervention in the social conflicts at hand, ended in decline - and with it,  all the proof that it was still possible to be sharpwitted, clear-minded, uncompromising as a filmmaker, rather than a slave of big studios, a servant of markets and of the stupidity that the public is said (by the politicians and cultural "communicators") to keep asking for, incessantly and stubbornly - as if they ever had a true choice, as if they ever had a chance to learn to see, to discover the beauty and the truthfulness that movies, too, are capable of. Obviously, since at least the mid-70s, those in power got things under control again. At least in Euope, and in the U.S.!  The downturn here was accompanied, however, by beautiful 'nouvelle vagues,' as vital as (for instance) the one in Taiwan - the so-called Republic of China -  and later on also in the P.R. China. On the whole, however, the market, the studios, their streamlined mass ware is on top again. The best filmmakers of Yugoslavia believed they had to emigrate. Kusturica, for instance, went on to produce postmodernist shit in the United States. You don't hear much of the others - say, Zilnik or Petrovic - any more. And while the European market is swamped by infantile Hollywood productions,  its finest filmmakers that continue their battle (Godard, Straub-Huillet, etc.) have been marginalized economically; in fact boycotted by the cultural institutions and the cinema chains in a way not much different from the embargo Cuba is suffering from. 

In Germany, the New German Cinema that inspired us to so much hope has gone completely down the drain, opening the way for the chic post-modernism of Wenders and films like "Lola Runs." In France, the experience is very similar. The young directors, in touch with the "fun culture," are competing with their peers elsewhere in Europe while their products are as mediocre and exchangeable (and, in a way, "Americanized") as the cars produced by big car companies the world over.

If we learn one lesson from this, then that it is necessary to persist. The plain fact is that in the political and cultural 'cycle' just as much as in the business cycle, there are upswings and downturns. And while the global attack on the living standards of wage (or salary) earning people, their kids and the aged, continues (in Portugal as much as in Mexico or Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, the U.S.A., France, Germany, or Poland or Russia), the conditions of work of "cultural workers" (poets, novelists, film-makers, painters, print-makers, and so on) get even tougher.  The imbecility of the mass media is increasing. The democratic game is getting more and more farcical, with HEINZ Ketchup running against the  ENRON/HALIBURTON ticket in the US, and abstentionism and apathy among voters breaking all records. And yet, it is all the more  necessary for our survival to trust in the ability of women and men to discover beauty, to hold on to the hope that people deep down inside long for truthfulness, for justice, for humane relationships, for a much more democratic culture and society. 

There will be another spring, after all.