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 first feature film “Murina” at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the end of the festival, Kusijanović organizes a 12-hour road trip with her husband to her native Croatia, where she gave birth to her first child Petrus, just before winning the golden camera award at Cannes with “Murina”, a double feast. which earned her newborn son a lifetime festival credential.
Eight months later, she sat down with Variety to tell us how her life has changed since winning the coveted award and looks back on her journey to achieve it. Vibrant, luminous, restless and powerful like her debut feature “Murina”, Kusijanović wasted no time. She is already well advanced in her second release, a daring English-language film she co-wrote with Yinuo Wang (“90 Days”) and which she will shoot in Mexico. As with “Murina”, one of the dominant themes of her next project will be motherhood.
Recently acquired by Kino Lorber, “Murina” will bow at the opening night of the First Look Festival at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image on Wednesday. A tense and sensual coming-of-age tale, the film follows Julija (Gracija Filipovic), whose urge to break free from her oppressive father and isolated existence on the Croatian coast is sparked by a visit from a family friend. Filipovic also received critical acclaim with her performance and was one of the 10 Shooting Stars at that year’s Berlinale.
Kusijanović was signed by UTA on the heels of her Cannes win and began reading scripts, as well as making appointments with US studios and top producers for other projects.
Unlike many young writer-directors, Kusijanović has a solid background in production, having worked as a producer on numerous projects in Croatia. She has also gained extensive knowledge of the American film industry since moving to New York at the age of 22 and working for several film companies.
Martin Scorsese’s involvement as executive producer (via his Sikelia banner) on his first film underscores Kusijanović’s pedigree. His short film “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 a desire to pursue her big dreams and knew that would not happen back home where she felt limited by patriarchal expectations. Although she always wanted to become a filmmaker, she assumed it was not an option even though she was a child actress in Croatia from the age of 6.
“There was no place for a woman to make films in Croatia when I was younger. Even now, after winning the Camera d’Or, people in Croatia say, ‘Who is she and where? did she learn directing and how come she can make films?” said Kusijanović. Although “Murina” was the first Croatian film to win a major international award at an recent history, he was not selected to represent the country in the race for the Oscars.
She continued acting until her late teens and graduated with a degree in production from the Zagreb Film Academy, where she produced many short films, 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 the ability to become a director within her.
Kusijanović’s first adventure in film began unexpectedly with a rodent. “Every day, on my way to school or to work, I saw a big puffy rat and I was very intrigued. I decided to produce a documentary about it and realized there was a war with the construction union and the non-unions, which was very comical,” she said.
As no one wanted to direct the documentary because “everyone was afraid of the construction union”, Kusijanović started shooting it herself but eventually had to abandon the project after being attacked and threatened by union members. “The police came to the scene and they said to me, ‘you are very young and beautiful’. And there are many other different things you can photograph, for example photographing the windows of Bergdorf Goodman or the flowers from Central Park,” she laughed.
From this strange and perilous experience, Kusijanović realized that she really wanted a direct film. “I showed my draft to a dear friend, Dylan Leiner (of Sony Pictures Classics), who said, ‘You’re a director. You should study directing,” and I took his advice and enrolled at Columbia where I got a master’s degree in screenwriting and directing.
Reflecting her dual nationality, Kusijanović combines the sensibility of a European auteur with the focused approach of an American filmmaker, giving her a competitive edge in gaining critical and commercial recognition.
“European directors often say that they don’t care about the audience, but I think that’s not true because if you don’t care about the audience, you can just write poetry, paint or do whatever what else 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’re making a film – and every good European film does – because if you have an idea, an emotional state that you want to express, you want to make sure that other people can follow this.” and reach that emotional place,” she added.
A perfectionist at heart, Kusijanović also attaches great importance to the script to give his narration a solid base and a particular rhythm. “I don’t believe in the first idea. I always believe in rewriting an idea over and over again to find the essence of the first idea,” she said. For “Murina”, she wrote countless drafts and explored multiple variations 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 beat to convey the sensuality you see in the film,” the director said.
While making “Murina” at her home in Croatia, Kusijanović also experienced maturity as a feminist, coming face to face with what she described as “misogyny, chauvinism and violence” perpetrated by both men and women. women.
Still, Kusijanović said she didn’t make “Murina” “to attack men, politics or tourism, even though the film kind of does all of that”, but rather to “remind each of us of the resilience and faith in life you have as a boy or girl of 16. It was at this tender age that she got her first taste of life abroad, as a student exchange in a college in a sub-arctic region of French Canada “where it was -40 degrees Celsius every day”.
Another event that had a profound impact on her was a close encounter with war and death. She will always remember that day when she was with her family looking for a Christmas tree and they found themselves in the middle of a huge car explosion.
“We were in such close proximity to an explosion, almost in its bubble, strangely nothing happened to us but I don’t know how anyone survived that, because around us there was only a crater left in the ground, the person driving the other car was burned to the decapitated engine, it was really an image that will never leave me,” Kusijanović said.
She said that trauma defined her way of thinking about life and her work. “I won’t do any project or film if I don’t think it’s an important story to tell in the face of death,” she said, adding, however, that she “believes you can also find that in the work and adaptations of other people”. “as long as you have that ‘visceral connection’.