The Old School of Capitalism

Želimir Žilnik

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From the East: Week #4 The Old School of Capitalism
Želimir Žilnik

122 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeating till Tuesday, February 22, 12pm EST

The Old School of Capitalism is rooted in the first wave of worker revolts to hit Serbia since the advent of capitalism. Desperate workers bulldoze through factory gates and are devastated to discover that the site has been looted by the bosses. Eccentrically escalating confrontations—including a melee with workers wearing American football pads and helmets, with the boss and his security force in bulletproof vests—prove fruitless. Committed young anarchists offer solidarity, take the bosses hostage. A Russian tycoon, a Wall Street trader, and US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Belgrade unexpectedly complicate events, which culminate in a shocking end. As it progresses, the film produces an increasingly complex and yet unfailingly lively account of present-day—in fact, up-to-the-minute—struggles under the misery-inducing effects of both local and global capitalism. The film was developed out of research into the factories of Sinvoz, BEK, and Jugoremedija in the city of Zrenjanin. These factories were devastated in the process of “reprivatization,” causing production to be stopped and leaving thousands of workers unemployed. Žilnik followed the workers’ protests and their occupation of the factories. The captured footage resulted in a documentary, which was given to the workers to spread their message. The production company Playground Produkcija also joined the effort, and later produced a series of TV documentaries called What Remains After Bankruptcy. The series was screened on local TV and very much contributed to the visibility of and media attention to these struggles. After the documentary series was completed, the workers suggested to Žilnik that he should continue to work with the topic, and that the capitalist bastards should be shown and analyzed. Žilnik agreed and invited the workers themselves to play all the roles. (What, How & for Whom/WHW)

The Old School of Capitalism is the fourth installment of From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat) as the ninth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The film is presented alongside a text response by Amir Husak.

From the East runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 10 through February 20, 2022, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned response published in text form.

The Pain That Sits in One’s Stomach: Želimir Žilnik’s The Old School of Capitalism, Revisited
By Amir Husak

Emerging as a key figure of the Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Želimir Žilnik is one of the most prolific filmmakers living today. His oeuvre extends across a period of more than fifty years and includes a long list of dazzling films that evade easy categorization. In one of his early interviews, he states that film is, primarily, “a possibility to impart in one breath the pain that sits in one’s stomach, and which obviously is not only their own private thing.”[1] From today’s standpoint, that statement candidly foreshadows his continued interest in the fate of those who live on the fringes of society. Committed to a documentary approach, Žilnik, throughout much of his life, worked with—and sought to articulate the voice of—various marginalized social groups. Over the years the protagonists of his films included dispossessed workers, homeless men, trans sex workers, asylum seekers, and many others who, in one way or another, had been compromised and had found themselves at the mercy of social or political dogmas. Using a method akin to that of the docudrama, Žilnik became somewhat of a forensic wizard in detecting and exposing the dark underbelly of state ideology; in challenging the dominant rhetoric and bringing its many contradictions into sharp focus. Interestingly, and this is perhaps the most spellbinding characteristic of Žilnik’s work, his films have never operated from some imagined moral high ground but instead have continued to raise critical questions about the practice of film itself. Throughout his career, he repeatedly expressed doubts in the emancipatory potential of culture. Aware of the filmmaker’s complicity and the limits of cinema as a tool for social change, Žilnik allowed the schism between the film apparatus and politics/activism to play out on the screen. In one of the more memorable moments from his 1971 seminal short documentary The Black Film, he acknowledges these predicaments straight into the camera: “I made a similar film two years ago, but it didn’t change anything.”

His 2009 film The Old School of Capitalism is a riveting culmination of the methods he developed over decades of committed filmmaking. The central protagonists of the film are the dispossessed workers from the Šinvoz and BEK factories undergoing privatization in Northeast Serbia. After spending two years documenting the first wave of anticapitalist protests by worker collectives and unions in the city of Zrenjanin, Žilnik eventually invited the aggrieved workers to play themselves in a semi-fictional account of the events. Alternating between vérité footage from protests across Serbia with reenactments, spontaneous encounters, and scripted scenes, the film follows the workers as they try to navigate the new realities of life after communism. The result is a complex film that, through the prism of the local politics of post-socialist transition, paints a much larger and bleak picture of life under burgeoning global capitalism. Deeply entangled in the struggles of its protagonists, The Old School of Capitalism leaves no stone unturned. At times outlandish, farcical, and perplexing in its density and search for meaning, the film acknowledges the limits of left-wing activism and forewarns of a political impasse generated by the new ethno-nationalist class and the purveyors of neoliberal capitalism—not only in Serbia, but also across the world. What plays out on the screen is, essentially, a tell-tale story of how capital encroaches on, corrupts, and devastates both land and labor resources.

The plot, at first, seems remarkably simple: Upon discovering that the owners of the factory have sold off all the machinery and left them short of a two-year-worth of back pay, the workers break in and occupy the factory grounds. They attempt various tactics to bring their nouveau riche bosses to a negotiating table, but to no avail. A group of young anarchists from Belgrade hears about the occupation and arrives to help. In an effort to show solidarity and earn trust, they kidnap the wealthy bosses and bring them to the workers who are squatting in the empty factory halls. The confrontation that ensues, as the workers begin to interrogate their bosses, is one of the film’s most potent moments of dialectical docudrama that intertwines staged and perceived realities in almost uncanny ways. Anyone familiar with Žilnik’s work will not be surprised by this argumentative mélange in which non-professional actors—many of whom play themselves—perform in a Brecht-like theater of life, culminating in a chorus of the marginalized desperately attempting to live in a society that no longer seems to have a place or use for them. This compelling encounter is interrupted by a special police force unit—sent by the bosses’ Russian tycoon cronies, as we later find out—that storms the building and takes the young anarchists into custody. In a surprising twist, the workers disassociate themselves from the anarchists and reconcile with their bosses, who conjure up promises of ironing things out and putting them back to work. Later in the film, this symbolic betrayal becomes a subject of discussion between the leader of the anarchist group and a comrade benefactor Svebor (played by Belgrade philosopher Branimir Jovanović), as both ponder over class consciousness and the (im)possibility of solidarity in a society steeped in criminality and legitimized plunder. As it unfolds, the plot becomes increasingly more complex. In the meantime, then US Vice President Biden arrives for a visit to Belgrade, prompting a protest in which one of the anarchists burns an American flag and ends up in jail. Although this act was restaged in the film, Ratibor Trivunac, who plays the idealistic leader of the anarchist group and is a real life anarchist politician, was truly arrested for this protest.[2] It is also worth noting that, a couple of months before Biden’s visit, Dmitry Medvedev, who was the Russian president at the time, also paid a visit to Serbia. These official, back-to-back visits harkened back to the times of socialist, non-aligned Yugoslavia, when both the West and the East courted the Yugoslav leadership and hawkishly competed for influence in the region.

The fate of BEK and Šinvoz is identical to that of other factories in the region. Since the release of Žilnik’s film, countless other formerly worker-managed and state-owned companies have fallen prey to dubious privatization schemes, bankruptcy, and closures, leaving thousands of workers on the street. By now, the situation clearly reflects a larger trend seen in post-communist countries that, under the guise of economic progress and supposed efforts to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the West, involves extreme subjugation of labor. Inevitably, this process also adds to the gradual erasure of industrial modernism from the collective imaginary of the East. The West is purportedly re-modernizing the East, and the factory workers become the unassuming victims of this “transition,” the very concept of which, as Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks suggest, “actually hides the monumental neo-colonial transformation of this region into a dependent semi-periphery.”[3]

In his Lexicon of the Transition column for the weekly Novosti,[4] sociologist and cultural critic Hajrudin Hromadžić delineates “transition” as an ideological hoax, pointing to the ambiguity of the term itself as it increasingly denotes an indefinite and unresolved state of transmutation from socialism to capitalism. What first appeared to be a mere figure of speech, gradually exposed itself as a non-linear, never-ending process rife with antagonisms, deep discontinuities, and an ongoing loss of commons[5]. At the center of this transformation, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, was a rapid, and at times violent, transfer of ownership. Anything that was state or collectively owned—once a hallmark of socialist Yugoslavia—became a legitimate target of the so-called transition. In this whirlwind, privatization was largely understood and treated as historically inevitable. As shown in the film, privatization, backed by a dubiously remodeled judicial system, became the key apparatus of post-socialist accumulation of capital. Spearheading the transition to capitalism, Žilnik reminds us, are the same people who are greatly responsible for the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and include a well-known cadre of war profiteers, nationalist politicians, and their Machiavellian entrepreneur friends from near and far.

There appear to be three colossal, overlapping cycles of privatization across Eastern Europe. The first, which involved privatization of economic and industrial capacities inherited from the period of Yugoslav socialism, has largely been completed, resulting in large-scale deindustrialization with catastrophic effects. The second cycle has been going on for the last two decades and involves concentrated efforts to bring vital public and social services, such as health, infrastructure, and education, under the privatization model as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. The third, current and particularly painful stage of privatization is penetrating the biotope itself—the still-intact natural resources that the region abounds in, especially its rivers and forests.[6] One could say that The Old School of Capitalism takes place at the intersection of the first and second cycles, documenting and, to a certain extent, dissecting capitalism’s brutal attack on labor. The end result is pure necropolitics, with people’s health deteriorating under duress: some resigned to their fate, others committing suicide, and a few dying a grotesque, symbolic death, as is the case with the anarchist leader in the shocking finale of the film. But looking back, why did it take so long for the unions and worker collectives to respond to the obvious signs of their impending demise? A partial answer to that question lies in the fact that faith in the transition ran particularly high in the first two decades. Many, including Žilnik himself,[7] were hopeful that the sweeping economic transformation and the sudden influx of Western capital would bring about positive change after years of stagnation and warfare. The unspoken consensus among many, including the more progressive intellectual contingent of artists, was to wait and see, hoping that, once capitalism settles and the money starts to flow, things will get better. Gradually, with the demise of industry and the rise of powerful oligarchs, those hopes all but vanished.

More than a decade since the release of The Old School of Capitalism, the final, third cycle appears to be fully underway. Protests highlighting environmental concerns, and actions against illegal land appropriations have become commonplace across the Western Balkans. Among the recent examples is the wave of demonstrations against the government’s plan to allow the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto to mine and extract lithium on various locations in Serbia.[8] Across the border, in Central Bosnia, a similar struggle takes place where the largely successful women-led campaign against the construction of mini hydropower plants on the pristine river of Kruščica temporarily halted the project.[9] It is too soon to try and predict the outcomes of these regional battles against late-stage capitalism, but the pain in the stomach that Žilnik described is most definitely not our own private thing anymore. It has grown considerably, consuming more than just our bodies. It is in the air, water, and soil.

[1] Želimir Žilnik, interview, “Art Film Does Not Interest Me,” Susret, April 5, 1968. As quoted in Želimir Žilnik, et al. Shadow Citizens - Želimir Žilnik. Oldenburg Sternberg Press, 2019.

[2] Ewa Mazierska, “Old School Capitalism in Post-Socialism The Struggles of Želimir Žilnik’s Workers Work in Eastern European Socialist Ideology, Everyday Experience, and Cinema 1,” in: Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow (ed.), A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film(John Wiley and Sons, 2019).

[3] Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks (ed.), Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism : Radical Politics after Yugoslavia. (Verso, 2015).

[4] Hajrudin Hromadžić, “Leksikon Tranzicije: Demokracija,” Novosti, May 2019. https://www.portalnovosti.com/pretraga?pojam=leksikon+tranzicije

[5] See also “Hajrudin Hromadžić: Kojim jezikom ’govori’ takozvana tranzicija?.” Predavanja: Dijalozi, editor Ivan Milenković, Radio Beograd 3, RTS, 13 Dec. 2017

[6] Hajrudin Hromadžić, “Leksikon Tranzicije: Privatizacija,” Novosti, May 2019. https://www.portalnovosti.com/leksikon-tranzicije-privatizacija

[7] See: Greg DeCuir Jr., “Old School Capitalism: An Interview with Želimir Žilnik,” Cineaste, April 1, 2010. https://www.cineaste.com/fall2010/old-school-capitalism-an-interview-with-Želimir-Žilnik?rq=Žilnik

[8] Significant deposits of lithium have been discovered around the western town of Loznica, where Rio Tinto is buying up land. See: Daniel Boffey, “Rio Tinto’s Past Casts a Shadow over Serbia’s Hopes of a Lithium Revolution,” The Guardian, November 19, 2021. www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/nov/19/rio-tintos-past-casts-a-shadow-over-serbias-hopes-of-a-lithium-revolution.

[9] Alma Midžić, “Kruščica: Defending Balkan Rivers,” ourcommons.org, July 2018. https://ourcommons.org/featured/kruscica-brave-women-balkan-rivers/

Amir Husak is a documentary media maker and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York. Combining emergent and traditional media, essay, and experimental techniques, Husak’s work explores documentary as social practice and investigates representations of economic infrastructures, borders, and migration. His works have been shown at international venues including the Cinemateca Distrital (Bogota, Colombia), Sarajevo Film Festival (Bosnia & Herzegovina), Stadtmuseum Graz (Austria), South by Southwest (US), Sundance Film Festival (US), Crvena Association for Culture and Art (Sarajevo, Bosnia), and TV Cultura (Brazil). Husak is a co-editor of the volume on socially engaged art and activist media in Bosnia-Herzegovina titled Kriza, Umjetnost, Akcija (Crisis, Art, Action; 2016). He holds a PhD degree from the University of Leeds, UK.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Capitalism, Labor & Work
Documentary, Eastern Europe, Post-socialism, Protests & Demonstrations, Privatization
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Želimir Žilnik has been making films since the 1960s and is one of the most celebrated practitioners of a radical, internationalist, independent cinema in Europe.


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