Friday, April 5, 2013

Boris Buden on "Black Film": Film Art and Social Change

"The next day on the streets of Novi Sad he (Žilnik) used his camera to enquire about how to solve the problem of homeless people in the city. Neither the passers-by nor the officials have an answer to this question. The filmmaker himself doesn’t have it either, for ‘these stinky people’, as he calls them in the film, cannot stay in his flat forever. So, finally, after telling them that no solution to this problem has been found and that he is running out of tape, Žilnik asks those people to leave his home.

Again: what is black in this ‘Black Film’? The reality it depicts? The failure of communists to solve social problems? The notorious gap between a utopian promise and reality? No! It is the film itself, the very idea of art, especially film art, claiming power to change social reality – this is what is really black in Black Film. In fact it begins with the author saying to the camera: ‘I used to make these films two years ago, but such people [the homeless –B.B.] are still here.’ The film is a radically honest self-reflexive critique of the idea and practice of so-called socially engaged cinema. Žilnik openly considers Black Film being his own tomb. In a manifesto published on the occasion of the 1971 film festival where the film premiered, he calls the whole festival a ‘graveyard’. ‘Black’ here refers to the ‘misery of an abstract humanism’ and of the ‘socially engaged film that has become a ruling fashion in our bourgeois cinematography’; it refers to its false avant-gardism, social demagogy and left-wing phraseology; to its abuse of a socially declassed people for the purposes of film; to the filmmakers’ exploitation of social misery, etc. But, what is even more important, ‘black’ doesn’t refer at all to a ‘lack of freedom’, which is usually presented from today’s postcommunist perspective as the worst ‘blackness’ of the communist past. In the 1971 manifesto Žilnik explicitly states: ‘They left us our freedom, we were liberated, but ineffective.’ ‘Black’ refers to a chasm that no freedom can bridge, a chasm that will survive the fall of communism.

For Žilnik a film, and in a broader sense culture, however liberated from totalitarian oppression, will never provide a remedy for social misery. For him the emancipatory promise of culture is a bluff. In his mocking the authors of the socially engaged films from 1971 who search ‘for the most picturesque wretch that is prepared to convincingly suffer’, he already makes fun of the liberal inclusivism that twenty years later will impose its normative dogmatism on the cultural producers of the new (and old) democracies. We know that picture very well: one discovers somewhere on the fringes of society the victims of exclusion, those poor subaltern creatures with no face and no voice. But luckily there is an artist around to help them show their faces and make their voices heard. How nice: what bad society has excluded, good art can include again. For, as one believes, what has been socially marginalised can always be made culturally central, that is, brought to light – to the transparency of the public sphere – from the dark fringes of society. The rest is a democratic routine: a
benevolent civil society, sympathetic to the suffering of the poor and excluded, makes a political case of the social darkness; and as soon the party politics is involved, a political solution searched for and finally found, a low is changed, a democracy is reborn, now more inclusive than ever before."

Boris Buden, "Shoot it Black! An Introduction to Želimir Žilnik"
(Afterall, journal No. 25, autumn/winter 2010)

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