A quarter of a decade ago, Serbia was not what you might call a film production paradise. With Slobodan Milošević’s state apparatus focused on wars in Croatia and Bosnia, and hyperinflation demolishing the local financial infrastructure, the country’s filmmakers were left to make do with exile, low-to-no budget productions, or in the case of Emir Kusturica’s Underground, a mega-money international co-production that managed to combine both European internationalism and subtly pro-regime messages.
Amid all of this, one of the country’s longest-serving filmmakers, Želimir Žilnik, an old member of the famous Black Wave – who, along with Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović and Aleksandar Petrović, helped to bring Yugoslav cinema to international renown in the 1960s – made one of his greatest works. Marble Ass premiered in February 1995 at the Berlin Film Festival, becoming the first film to openly depict LGBTQ lives from the former Yugoslavia.
The film starred Vjeran Miladinović as Merlinka, a sex worker on the streets of Belgrade. We follow her as she and a group of friends, many drawn from Miladinović‘s real-life coterie of trans sex workers, attempt to calm the traumatised and angry young men returning from the front via the medium of fucking.
As we meet her, Merlinka’s world consists of the daily travails of the job, teaching younger sisters the trade, and a general gleeful enjoyment of life in the face of its unpleasantness. That equilibrium and liberty is upended when her old friend, Johnny (Nenad Racković), returns from the war. Unstable and pulsating with anger, aggression, and stolen goods, he moves into Merlinka’s house and turns to violent scams to make ends meet.
“Nobody tried to censor it… they said it was a bit extreme, but we had extreme films before”
But Marble Ass is no piece of grim social realism. An easy comparison point would be a young John Waters transplanted to mid-90s Belgrade. In conversation, Žilnik refers to the Andy Warhol-produced Flesh, directed by Paul Morrissey in 1968 as an inspiration for the film, whilst Vjeran/Merlinka, in the film’s gestation period, brought up their love of Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and its mixture of screwball antics and freewheeling gender-bending attitude.
The film’s existence is an anomaly in the larger Serbian and the ex-Yugoslav film world – its depiction of sex work, LGBTQ lives, and the underground is presented completely matter-of-factly, as if the existence of its protagonists is to be taken for granted. It stands in stark contrast to the small handful of LGBTQ themed films from the former Yugoslavia, which, even when centring LGBTQ characters, have a tendency to focus on reductive narratives of suffering; where the misery of LBGTQ people is a necessary martyrdom on the path to Western European-style liberalism. Hence, across films such as Dalibor Matanićs Fine Dead Girls (Croatia, 2002), Ahmed Imamović’s Go West (Bosnia, 2006), and Srdjan Dragojević’s Parada (Serbia, 2011), they are not characters of agency, but pawns in a wider game at the hands of a normative heterosexual society.
In an atmosphere as overburdened with regressive nationalism and negativity as Serbia during the 90s, the immediate assumption from our vantage point of 2020 would be that Marble Ass caused a cultural uproar at the time, condemned by all quarters. But the truth is entirely the opposite. The film passed largely without threat or fury as the attentions of the state apparatus and its attendant propaganda machine at the time were so focused on Bosnia and Croatia: “I was surprised even,” says Žilnik, “that there were no protests against the film. Nobody tried to censor it…they said it was a bit extreme, but we had extreme films before [during the Black Wave era]. All these aggressive, angry, political types, they were focused on the war. That was their obsession.”
Indeed, the first active demonstrations against LGBTQ people came after the war and Milošević’s deposal. The struggles of LGBTQ activists to build a viable pride parade in Belgrade have been well-documented over the years, with violence and threats a common occurrence for organisers from 2000 onwards. Whilst LGBTQ rights are still precarious in Serbia, the presence of a lesbian prime minister in Ana Brnabić (allegations of pinkwashing from President Aleksandar Vučić and Brnabić‘s own relative powerlessness within Serbia’s political machinations notwithstanding) does suggest a relaxation of attitudes, and Belgrade Pride is an annual occurrence rather than a flashpoint for nationalist and homophobic threats and violence.
Merlinka later pointed out that many of her clients were gangsters or politically connected, and would have been unwilling to be filmed
Marble Ass would not have existed were it not for a chance meeting between the director and its star one night on a train station platform in Belgrade. Waiting for his train back to Novi Sad, Žilnik was accosted by a tall blonde woman, who implored him to relax and spend some time with her. When Žilnik initially brushed off the attention, the woman got annoyed: “Želimir! How come you don’t recognise me!?” he remembers her pleading. Taking a closer look, he noticed that, beneath the blonde hair was Vjeran Miladinović, an actor whom he had worked with previously on Pretty Women Walking Through the City (1986).
During their previous project together, Miladinović had been out as a gay man, but was now presenting as a woman and going by the name Merlinka. Merlinka introduced Žilnik to her friends, who hung out at a cafe nearby, with cis and trans sex workers sharing the space. Žilnik was initially surprised: “I had been to New York and to Amsterdam – but I couldn’t believe such a scene existed [in Belgrade]. I suppose you could see it as a reaction, a provocation, even an attack on the world around them. They had customers, many of them armed, conscripts returning from the war.”
From this chance meeting came the idea to film the group. An early plan for a documentary was quickly shelved when, while secretly filming Merlinka’s dealings with a client from behind a car, Žilnik and his cameraman accidentally made a noise. The client spun around, pistol in hand, and starting shooting in their general direction. Merlinka later pointed out that many of her clients were gangsters or politically connected, and would have been unwilling to be filmed having decidedly unpatriotic intercourse. The decision was taken to begin shooting a film with a fictionalised plot instead.
Žilnik recalls how Merlinka described herself and her friends: “Belgrade is so crazy these days that we are now the most normal people in Belgrade.”
Marble Ass’s relatively quiet procession through the public sphere suggests that, in the chaos of the 90s, a space had opened up for something that pushed against standardised conceptions of gender and sexuality, albeit briefly and inadvertently. Although communist Yugoslavia was not friendly to LGBTQ rights, the destruction of Yugoslavia by criminal and nationalist forces constituted a wholesale realignment of social values – shifting directly from the pan-national “Brotherhood and Unity” slogans, to mythological imagery rooted in ethnonationalism.
With criminality and aggression becoming the standard position for many of those in public life, Marble Ass appeared as an attempt to build its own value system. Just as early John Waters’ films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble so often built their action around a makeshift family, so too does Marble Ass, where sex, pleasure, and a refusal to conform to gender norms are positively associated, whilst stereotypically masculine behaviour is linked to pain and unhappiness.
While Merlinka finds satisfaction in her relatively simple lifestyle, and appears entirely unburdened by the war, Johnny is perpetually on edge, acting out his enforced masculine role as if covering up a deeper, existential fear about his role in society. When Jonny insults Merlinka’s profession, she retorts: “People pay me with a smile.” Her friend Sanela toys with carrying a knife to protect herself from clients, but Merlinka implores her not to, suggesting there are smarter ways to fight. When a female commandant of Johnny’s turns up in Belgrade on leave, Merlinka assumes she is male, so aggressive, violent, and masculinised is her behaviour. Where the world around her resorts automatically to violence, Merlinka rejects it at all costs.
Merlinka is the film’s star more so than Vjeran. In keeping with Žilnik’s lifelong ethos of working with his protagonists, the script, though written by him, was given to Merlinka and the cast to rewrite with plentiful splashes of Belgrade street-slang. Merlinka herself is a born icon – drawing in the limelight even on the film’s scrappy videotape stock, borrowed from an Austrian TV crew impressed by Žilnik’s previous film, Tito for the Second Time Among the Serbs, where the director hired a Tito impersonator to walk the streets of Belgrade and talk to citizens about the collapse of Yugoslavia.
In the wake of the film’s release, she and her co-stars took every opportunity to visit TV chat shows and radio stations across Milošević’s Serbia. For many, it was probably their first direct exposure to anyone from the Balkans openly identifying as gay or transgender. The Merlinka we see on these appearances is an intelligent figure, a refreshing counterpoint to the dreary boorishness that played a part in the tabloidisation of media during the 90s. Yet, perversely, that very tabloidisation is what allowed Merlinka the space on which to carve out her name – at times, it’s almost as if she’s being invited on for the audience to gawk at, but she refuses to fall into that trap, responding with intellect and empathy.
Tragically, Vjeran Miladinović Merlinka was murdered in 2003. The perpetrator was never found. Today, their legacy endures with the film and Belgrade’s annual LGBTQ film festival, Merlinka, which is named in her honour. She remains a trailblazer in Balkan LGBTQ history. The film itself, though unavailable on home release, still exists through the ether of the online world; often ignored or only casually mentioned in the region’s film history, despite its breakthrough status. LGBTQ cinema is increasingly breaking through to the mainstream, despite the fact that LGBTQ rights are under attack from right-wing politics the world over. Now is the time to rediscover Marble Ass – it shows us that, after all, progress is not a straight line.