Želimir Žilnik’s The Old School of Capitalism (2009) intriguingly documents Serbian society in the throes of adopting capitalism after decades of state socialism. Chaos reigns as workers fret over their place in the hierarchy of global capital. Russian oligarchs are panting at the gates; Joe Biden makes a visit. All the while, Serbian workers debate potential outcomes and struggle to put food on the table.
The film begins during a mass protest for workers’ rights. Žilnik presents documentary footage of real debate among the workers over the perceived merits of both socialism and capitalism. Many desire the return of state-sponsored free education and economic certainty; others lust for the bounties of the free market. Žilnik records these public debates and then casts the participants as themselves in fictional portraits of struggle.
The protesters-turned-characters are factory workers who haven’t been paid in a year. They break into their shuttered factory only to find its contents already sold off by the manager. From there they dismantle the facade in order to use the bricks to rebuild homes. They engage with hired thugs and develop a plot to kidnap the boss and extract some form of restitution. Žilnik returns to the central economic debates throughout the film, even as his fictionalized plot unfolds. Scenes of violence and drama give way to characters locked in discussions concerning their shared future. Having been in the club for so long, with little hope of ever leaving, it’s edifying for American audiences to hear real people contemplate a position on the brink of capitalism.