A testament to her fearless nature and boundless determination, Croatian-American filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović was nine months pregnant when she traveled from New York to present her feature debut “Murina” at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the end of the festival, Kusijanović tool a 12-hour road trip with her husband to her homeland in Croatia, where she gave birth to her first child Petrus, right before scooping Cannes’ Golden Camera award with “Murina,” a double feast which earned her newborn son a lifetime festival accreditation.
Eight months later, she sat with Variety to tell us how her life has changed since winning the coveted award and looked back at her journey getting there. Vibrant, bright, restless and forceful like her first feature “Murina,” Kusijanović hasn’t wasted any time. She’s already well advanced on her sophomore outing, a daring English-language film which she co-wrote with Yinuo Wang (“90 Days”) and will shoot in Mexico. As with “Murina,” one of the overriding themes of her next project will be motherhood.
Recently acquired by Kino Lorber, “Murina” will bow on the opening night of the First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on Wednesday. A tense and sensual coming-of-age tale, the movie follows Julija (Gracija Filipovic), whose urge to break free from her oppressive father and isolated existence in coastal Croatia is triggered by the visit of a family friend. Filipovic also gained critical acclaim with her performance and was one of the 10 Shooting Stars at this year’s Berlinale.
Kusijanović was signed by UTA on the heels of her Cannes victory and has started reading scripts, as well as taking meetings with U.S. studios and top-notch producers for some other projects.
Unlike many young writer-directors, Kusijanović comes with a strong background in production, having worked as a producer on many projects back in Croatia. She’s also gained a deep knowledge about the U.S. film biz since moving to New York at the age of 22 and working for several film companies.
Martin Scorsese’s involvement as executive producer (through his banner Sikelia) on her debut movie underscores Kusijanović’s pedigree. Her short “Into the Blue” was nominated for a Student Academy Award, and won awards at Berlin and Sarajevo, among other festivals.
Like her protagonist in “Murina,” Kusijanović grew up in Croatia with an urge to fulfill her big dreams and knew that it wouldn’t happen back home where she felt limited by patriarchal expectations. Although she had always wanted to become a filmmaker, she assumed it wasn’t an option even if she was a child actor in Croatia from the age of 6.
“There was no place for a woman to direct films in Croatia when I was younger. Even now, after winning the Golden Camera, people in Croatia are saying, ‘who is she and where did she learn directing and how come she can make movies?” said Kusijanović. Although “Murina” is the first Croatian movie to have won a major international prize at a festival in recent history, it wasn’t selected to represent the country in the Oscar race.
She continued acting until her late teens and got a degree in production from the Film Academy in Zagreb, where she produced many shorts, TV formats and commercials. It wasn’t until she moved to New York and forged deep bonds within the local film community that she realized she had it in her to become a director.
Kusijanović’s first venture into filmmaking started out unexpectedly with a rodent. “Every day on my way to school or work, I’d see a big inflated rat and I was very intrigued by it. I decided to produce a documentary about it and realized that there was a war with the construction union and the non-union which was very comedic,” she said.
Since no one wanted to direct the documentary because “everybody was scared of the Construction Union,” Kusijanović started shooting it herself but ultimately had to abandon the project after getting attacked and threatened by union members. “Police arrived on the scene and they told me, ‘you’re very young and beautiful. And there’s many other different things that you can shoot, for example shoot Bergdorf Goodman windows or flowers in Central Park,” she said with a laugh.
From this odd and perilous experience, Kusijanović realized that she truly wanted a direct films. “I showed my rough draft to a dear friend, Dylan Leiner (from Sony Pictures Classics), who said, ‘You are director. You should study directing,’ and I followed his advice, I enrolled into Columbia where I got an MFA in Screenwriting and Directing.”
Reflecting her dual citizenship, Kusijanović brings together the sensibility of a European auteur with the goal-oriented approach of an American filmmaker, which give her a competitive edge to achieve critical and commercial recognition.
“European directors often say that they don’t care about the audience but I think it’s not true because if you don’t care about the audience, then you can just write a poetry, paint or do anything else that doesn’t require millions of dollars and hundreds of people to support your vision,” she says.
“It’s important to have an audience in mind when you make a film — and every good European film does it — because if you have an idea, an emotional state that you want to express, you want to make sure that other people can follow that and reach that emotional place,” she added.
A perfectionist at heart, Kusijanović also places a large emphasis on the script to give her storytelling a strong foundation and a particular pace. “I don’t believe in the first idea. I always believe in rewriting an idea over and over to come up with the essence of the first idea,” she said. For “Murina,” she wrote countless drafts and exploring multiple variation of the story.
“As much as I allow improvisation, only structure can give me that confidence and precision to lead the audience and build the rhythm to convey the sensuality you see in the film,” said the helmer.
While making “Murina” back home in Croatia, Kusijanović also experienced a coming of age as a feminist, being confronted with what she described as “misogyny, chauvinism and violence” perpetrated by both men and women.
Yet, Kusijanović said she didn’t make “Murina” “to attack men, politics or tourism, even though movie somehow does all of that,” but rather to “remind every one of us of the resilience and faith in life you have as a 16-year-old boy or a girl.” It was at that tender age that she got her first glimpse at life abroad, as an exchange student in a middle school in a sub-Arctic Circle area of French Canada “where it was -40 Celsius every day.”
Another event that had a profound impact on her was a close encounter with war and death. She’ll always remember that day when she was with her family driving to get a Christmas tree and they found themselves in the middle of a massive car explosion.
“We were in such a proximity of explosion, almost in it’s bubble, strangely nothing happened to us but I don’t know how anybody could survive this, because around us all was left was a crater in the ground, the person who was driving the other car was burned to the engine decapitated, it was really an image that will never leave me,” said Kusijanović.
She said this trauma defined how she thinks about life and her work. “I won’t do any project or film if I don’t think that it’s an important story to tell in the face of death,” she said, adding nevertheless that she “believes you can also find that in other people’s work and adaptations” as long as you have that “visceral connection.”