TOAntoneta Alamat Kusijanović was nine months pregnant when she walked on stage at Cannes last July for the premiere of her movie Murina. The Croatian director had flown to Europe a couple of months earlier from New York, where she lives, after doctors had told her that May was her cut-off point for plane travel. The plan was to have her baby from her in the south of France: everything was organized. But after a couple of days in Cannes – “I parted, I danced, I went to the beach, I swam, dined, met great people” – Kusijanović felt a need to give birth in her own country. “It was a strange emotional push. Like, OK, it’s time to go.”
Knowing that she could go into labor at any moment, she drove 13 hours from Cannes to Croatia with her husband and straight to hospital, where she gave birth to her son. Twelve hours later there was a call from the festival – she had won the Camera d’Or prize, for best first feature, would she like to go to the ceremony? “I mean, of course I couldn’t go back to Cannes, no!” Kusijanović says, laughing.
But you wouldn’t put it past her. After spending an entertaining hour with Kusijanović, it is clear that she is a force of nature, no nonsense, outspoken with a fiery and funny sense of humour. She’s speaking over Zoom from Texas, where she’s working on her second film of her. Nine-month-old Petrus (Cannes bestowed on him a lifetime accreditation in honor of his timely arrival of him) is napping in the next-door room. Her film by Ella Murina is brilliant: executive produced by Martin Scorsese and (mostly) ecstatically reviewed. Variety’s critic compared it to Patricia Highsmith, “if Highsmith had ever written a coming-of-age story set on the rocky, clear-watered Croatian coastline.” Quite rightly, Kusijanović is being hailed as a distinctive new voice in cinema.
Kusijanović says she started writing the script before #MeToo, but Murina is a film for our times, about machismo, ego and suffocating masculinity. It’s the story of a 16-year-old girl called Julija (Gracija Filipović), growing up in a sleepy Croatian fishing village with her fisherman dad, Ante (Leon Lučev), and her mum, Nela (Danica Curcic). To tourists, their existence looks idyllic. But Ante is a controlling and petulant patriarchal figure who demands total obedience from his wife and daughter of him. Like a psychological thriller or escape movie, the question is: can Julija break free of her father and the conformist values of her community?
What has been fascinating about screening Murina in Croatia, says Kusijanović, is that misogyny is so ingrained that some people miss it as a theme. “They will say: ‘What’s happening in this film? This is a normal family. Nothing really happens.’” Is Ante’s dominating behavior rationalized by the audience as part of Croatian culture? Kusijanović nods vigorously “Yes! But it’s not culture, it’s not mentality. That’s wrong!” Getting into her stride, she jabs her finger down the screen. “People think it’s normal: it’s our hot Mediterranean blood or whatever. It’s not, it’s just violence. We can passionately sing and cook great fish. That’s mentality. The rest is violence.” It drives her nuts when she’s in Croatia. “I get arrhythmia when I step out of the airport into a cab.” She catches herself and bursts out laughing. “I’m really bad. How is this going to sound?”
Kusijanović was born in Dubrovnik, into a family that could not be further from Julija’s in the film. Her mother de ella is a successful art restorer and painter. “I was very lucky to grow up in a family of very strong women. I actually discovered feminism very late. I didn’t know that I need to call myself a feminist because there was just a feminist way of life in our family.” She became a child actor, working from the age of six, mostly in theater. “I was very extrovert and outgoing. I’d be the one gathering the kids in my street for a theater show. From the age of five I was directing, actually.”
It was also around this time that Kusijanović’s childhood was swept up in the violence of the Balkan war. Her family de ella fled Croatia as refugees in 1991, living overseas for a couple of years, first in Italy, then at a monastery in Austria and, finally, in Germany. “I thought of it as travelling. My mother was really amazing at pulling that off. She really made it feel like a game. I don’t know if I could do that with my son.”
When they returned to Dubrovnik, the family’s apartment inside the city walls had been partially destroyed by a grenade. And then there was the trauma; one day Kusijanović’s primary school teacher was concerned enough to call in her mother from her. “I was writing dark poems. ‘My city is bleeding’ – that was the name of one poem. I was writing a lot about the fight between good and evil.”
Terrifyingly, after the war, back in Croatia, Kusijanović had a near-death experience in a landmine explosion. Driving in the mountains on a narrow road with her family de ella, they met an oncoming car. As the two cars nudged past each other, the other car drove on to a mine: “Our front wheel was 10cm from the landmine. The other car blew up in the air and fell on our car. The guy who was driving was decapitated. I was seven. I saw everything.” She says that one day she would like to write a story, something with a fantastical element, of a child’s view of war.
How did being a child of war shape her? Kusijanović pauses for a moment, deep in thought. “Since very early years I had a very strong sense of time. I think that’s what formed me most. I don’t think there’s anything worse than not fulfilling your time and your potential. It’s a real sin.” Another long pause. “War is a very stupid thing There’s no good reason to be in a war.” She must be watching the horror in Ukraine very closely, I say. “Yes, of course. It feels awfully familiar.”
When she was 27, Kusijanović began a master’s degree in film at Columbia University. The story of how she first picked up a camera sounds like an episode of The Sopranos. A few years before the MA, she decided to make a documentary about a labor dispute between union and non-union construction workers in her New York neighborhood. It seemed entertaining: one day, someone brought a giant inflatable rat. “It was really fascinating until I scratched too deep.” After being followed by heavies for a few days, things turned nasty. First intimidation: “They said to give up on this story, otherwise I might disappear.” She told them where to stick it. When the threats turned physical, the police advised her to stop her film.
That sounds terrifying. She shrugs. “If you don’t fight for something that matters, you should not do anything. I would never just direct a cute story. I don’t have the time. Because, you know, I can die tomorrow.”
What she is up for, however, is something on the scale of a superhero movie. Even before I get the question out, she answers: “I want to do that! If you know someone who’s gonna offer me that, I’m ready to go.” I wouldn’t second guess her.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism