Matica Magazine covers Freedom From Despair
Written by Mira Curic Translated by Martin Kolega
MANY CROATIAN IMMIGRANTS
RECOGNIZED THEMSELVES IN MY FILM
"I’m especially happy with the support that I’ve received from Croatians around the world. I’ve received hundreds of letters of thanks from people who have said they cried when they saw the movie because they felt like they were watching their own personal story or the story of their parents."
- Freedom from Despair, an interesting documentary film has been drawing critical and public attention screening at festivals worldwide. Its filmmaker, Brenda Brkusic, is a young American of Croatian descent. Why is this film interesting to us? Because of the film maker’s descent - certainly. Every success by young Croatians in arts, research, public life and other areas brings us joy. In this instance something else is interesting – that the young film maker’s documentary film is about Croatia and that she has made many around the world aware of our not so distant history and the state of human rights during the communist era. We therefore asked what Croatia means to her and why she decided to make this film.
- We know that you are born and live in America, but tell us a little about your Croatian roots.
* I was born on March 8th, 1981. I am the daughter of Croatian two immigrants to the US: Grozdana Ukas from Jezera on the island of Murter and and Krunoslav Brkusic from Bogomolje on the island of Hvar. I have many relatives still in Croatia, one of which is the singer Gibonni
- How did you decide to study film and television?
* I was born in Chicago but when I was 18 years old I moved to Los Angeles to study film, television and dance on an academic scholarship at Chapman University. Since I was little I knew that I would be doing something in the entertainment industry. I was a dancer for over 16 years, won awards for my choreography and taught dance classes to make money in college. A lot of people I meet at film festivals ask me if I am an actress and because I am so young they are usually surprised when I tell them that I was the director of the film. I thought stepping away from dance and modeling for a while and taking on filmmaking would be a new challenge that I could learn a lot from. And when I realized that I was capable of dramatically helping people through my films – that my
films could make such a positive difference in the world - I began to feel that this was my true calling. Right now I am busy promoting my feature documentary about Croatia "Freedom from Despair" and running my own production company. This year I will be working as an "Assistant to the Director" for Academy Award Winner, David Ward on his new feature film. When I was at Chapman I won a scholarship that allowed
me to work with David Ward while I was editing "Freedom from Despair." He was very helpful to me and he will always be my mentor because he believes in me.
- Your film is a documentary that speaks about the life experiences of your father, a Croatian patriot and political immigrant during Communist times in Croatia. What motivated you to bring your father’s experiences to film?
* When the war broke out in 1991 I was only 10 years old. My parents became very active in trying to get George Bush Senior and the American media to recognize Croatia’s freedom movement. Seeing them stand up for justice in that way made me appreciate our culture more but also made me want to know more about why my father had escaped Yugoslavia as a young man in the first place. That was when he told me the story of how he suffered in Communist Yugoslavia and how he risked his life to escape. I knew that this was a story that represented many Croatians who had experienced the same thing. I wanted to tell the story of those who suffered under communism and in the recent war. I felt that the people who were forced to leave their homeland deserved to have a voice. The film follows the untold history of the Croatian people’s struggle to overcome oppression from Communist Yugoslavia – a regime that suppressed Croatian culture and religion and liquidated over 720 Catholic priests. It is based on the incredible story of a young man’s life threatening escape from his homeland of Croatia in 1957. The film portrays the Croatian people’s fight to save their war-ravaged homeland in the 1990’s, exposing the truth about the their struggle which was never shown in the American mainstream media, including the American government’s attempt to keep Yugoslavia together by supporting two of the world’s bloodiest dictators, Josip Broz Tito and Slobodan Milosevic. The film explores the atrocities committed by the Communist government and its allies, exposing the truth that was silenced within a generation of survivors for the past century. The film is a celebration of culture, democracy and the abiding strength in the human spirit.
- It looks as if you lived and grew up in an exceptional patriotic family, where the film could also be called "Exceptional Brkusic family from Chicago". A family that was very active and involved in the whole process of the beginnings of the Croatian state. What are your memories of that time?
* Even at that very young age I remember knowing that what was happening around us with the break up of Yugoslavia was something extremely significant. I could see the stark, devastated expressions on the faces of my parents and their friends who were doing everything that they could to help their homeland. Since I was only a child I was confused about the whole situation but knew of my parent’s frustration with the inaccuracies in the US media’s reporting on the war. I witnessed on television the realities of war at such a tender age and I believe that experience transformed me into the person that I am today – someone who wants to help others who are suffering. It was one of the hardest times of our lives. To try and help I decided that I would write a letter to George Bush Sr. asking him why the United States, which is supposed to stand up for
freedom and democracy, is not recognizing the Croatian people’s request for freedom and democracy. When George Bush Sr.’s company wrote back to me they mentioned nothing about Croatia but told me to stay in school and asked me to hang a picture of Bush on my wall, and the picture was included in the envelope! Surely, this lame response to what I thought was a pretty sophisticated attempt by a ten year old to lobby the government caused me to become utterly disappointed with politics at a very young age! During our large demonstration in Washington D.C., I remember feeling like we were doing something very good and that the White House would surely listen to us since 40,000 people of one ethnic group were protesting on their front lawn. The film explains that unfortunately this was not the case and we Croatian Americans did not get the response from the White House that we were hoping for. Still, we did not give up. When people are defending their homeland, defending what they know is the truth, they will always prevail in the end – they will always win. And we Croatians outside of Croatia were one big family, ready and willing to help Croatia at a moments notice, and we always will be.
- In the film you incorporated interviews with Croatian immigrants who are living in America as well as recognizable figures in Croatia – victims of the Communist regime. What did you intend to show by interviewing them?
* I shot the film in California, Chicago and Croatia. In Croatia I filmed an interview with Marko Dizdar, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience and former president for the Association of Political Prisoners under Communism. I scripted narrative recreations based on his life story and inside the prison we shot scenes in a cell where here was imprisoned for 11 years. Marko Dizdar played himself in all of the recreations. I also had a young actor in Croatia, Petar Cvirn, play my father in scenes of him trying to escape his homeland when he was 17. I interviewed a priest in Croatia, Father Petar Bezina, who spoke about the 720 Catholic Priests that were abducted and killed by the UDBA. I chose these people specifically because they were never given a chance to tell their stories before – some were even persecuted for trying to bring out the
truth. Letting the world know the truth about what happened to them may be the only justice they will ever receive in their lives. In the US I interviewed Congressmen Dennis Kucinich (Democrat, Ohio) and George Radanovich (Republican, California) because I knew they would be able to give some insight regarding the American government’s foreign policy during the time of the war. I interviewed two authors on Croatian history, Mr. Michael McAdams, author of Croatia: Myth and Reality and Dr. Jerry Blaskovich, author of Anatomy of Deceit and investigator of war crimes, and many other people who could attest to the suffering of Croatians under Communism and in the homeland war. We know that for some people who lived in Yugoslavia the system was glorious, for others it was a nightmare. I am telling the story of those people who did not have it so well under that system, those who were unjustly persecuted or killed because they tried to speak out for justice and human rights.
- The film talks about oppression of freedoms, and a totalitarian regime that people all over the world can understand. What was the reaction of the Croatian Diaspora to a story which many of them can relate to? Which Croatian Associations helped support you?
* The film has done tremendously well and has been highly praised by both Croatians and non-Croatians. The film had a world premiere in the Amnesty International Film Festival at the Directors Guild in Hollywood last May. Amnesty International is the largest human rights organization in the world. By screening the film they were finally recognizing the Croatian story as a true and valid history that has been neglected for too long. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization, has named the film a Finalist in their competition, and the American Democracy Project has selected the film to play in 400 Universities around the United States thanks to Zdeslav Hrepic, a Croatian professor who recommended the film to them. Besides playing in the Pula film festival in Croatia and receiving a special recognition in the Dubrovnik international film festival, the film just won three Best Documentary Awards at the Hollywood International Student Film Festival, the New York International Independent Film Festival and the Chapman Studios Filmmaker Awards. People all over the world recently logged onto the internet to vote for the film in the Cinequest Film Festival’s Online Viewer Voice Awards and the film won the Viewer Voice Award! Cinequest is one of the top ten film festivals in the world so this was a great honor for us. The Croatian National Association of Los Angeles saw the film and decided unanimously to sponsor me in my attempts to take the film around the
world to share it with the Croatian community. Thanks to Croatian volunteers in each city, so far we have shown the film to thousands of people in LA, NY, Washington DC, Chicago, Ontario, Canada and further screenings in Canada and the US will continue in the spring. The CNA’s goal is to help me raise back the money I spent making the film so that I can continue to promote it and get it shown on television. (Because they are a non-profit group, any donations made towards the film are tax-deductible from US citizens). Associated Press did an interview with Milan Vukovic, President of the Croatian National Association and I about the film and its importance to current events in Croatia. Another non-profit organization, Women’s Day USA, is sponsoring the film in the upcoming Artivist Film Festival – a festival promoting socially conscious artists and their work. They believe that I am an "up and coming" young female artist and wanted to recognize my hard work on "Freedom from Despair" by sponsoring the film during the festival. I have also been interviewed by Kodak, on many Croatian and American TV and radio stations and in Arena Magazine. I am overwhelmed with joy by the support I have received from Croatians in the Diaspora. I have received hundreds of thank you letters, people who say the cried when they saw the film because they felt like they were watching their own story or the story of their parents. The donations that I have received so far have been very helpful in allowing me to submit the film to film festivals and to distributors for possible world wide distribution. The donations have covered only a fraction of what we need to raise, but my outlook is hopeful that more people will step up and offer donations once they realize how important the film is to the future of Croatia.
- Are you happy with the way your film was received in Croatia?
* Yes, I am satisfied with the way the film was received in Croatia. It was a big step for the film festivals there to show a film like this. One of the directors of the Pula film festival told me that she made a film last year about how much her father loved Tito and that it was really well received in Pula. I told her that it was very open-minded of her to
program "Freedom from Despair" in Pula since it shows a different perspective on Tito and I asked her why she did it. She said to me, "Croatia is Democratic now and it is about
time that people get a chance to see another perspective." I commend her for her bravery. If there is a bad critic, it will be because the film doesn’t agree with that particular person’s political agenda and it is usually no reflection of the film’s quality or integrity. The film is based on true stories from expert, eye-witnesses, and I am simply putting those stories together in a way that is artistically interesting to the viewer. Croatian
Television has written and expressed a strong interest in programming the film because they think that the young generation will especially find this story interesting, and I am waiting for things to move to the next level with them.
- You worked with many famous people on this project, for example John Savage, Michael York…How was it working with these famous people about the story of Croatia? In your future works, do you have any plans for incorporating Croatia, your family history, and the land of your present and future?
* The film is narrated by famous actor John Savage who has starred in academy award winning films. Michael York who has a Star on the "Hollywood Walk of Fame" and actress Beata Pozniak performed the English voice over for the interviews that were in Croatian. It was absolutely wonderful working with them on a story about Croatia. Even though I was a student making my first feature, Nenad Bach (the film’s music composer) believed in me enough to recommend my film to them. They were great team members and it was a great experience for me. Recently I teamed up with The Libertas Foundation in Los Angeles to give all three actors "Croatian Heart" awards for their participation in the film and they really appreciated that. Croatia is in my heart and so I will always be thinking of making films with Croatian themes.
-How long have you been coming to Croatia and where do you go when you visit? What Ties you to Croatia?
* My first visit to Croatia was in 1996 to see the homes where my parents were born. Since then I have been back almost every year and when we are there we stay with our family and friends. The land and culture of my parents ties me to Croatia – there is so much history there and so much beauty. My favorite city is Dubrovnik and I love the immaculate Adriatic Sea. I am very involved in Croatian culture here in the US and in preserving and spreading our history. I even take language classes when I have time. The children of the second and third generations here in the US will be missing something very special when our parents and grandparents pass away. Those original ancestors who came here form Croatia - they are very special people and life will not be the same here when they are gone. It is important to record their stories, the greatness that is them, before they are no longer able to tell us the stories themselves.
- Are there any other young Croatians who are involved or doing similar professions? Do you know or work with anybody else?
* I know a few producers and actors in the US who are dedicating their work to Croatian themes and I think it is a noble and wonderful choice because such themes are not easy to finance. Zvonko Ranogajec has been documenting the events of Chicago Croatians with his camera for many years and I was able to pick up some footage of my father that he recorded during the war which I used in the film. The young Croatians are always hoping to combine our efforts and work together – and when we support each other, no one can stop us – the results are magical!