Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović was nine months pregnant when she took the stage at Cannes last July for the premiere of her film Murina. The Croatian director had flown to Europe a few months earlier from New York, where she lives, after doctors told her May was her cut-off point for air travel. The plan was to give birth in the south of France: everything was organised. But after a few days in Cannes – “I partied, danced, went to the beach, swam, dined, met great people” – Kusijanović felt the urge to give birth in her own country. “It was a strange emotional surge. Like, OK, time to go.
Knowing she could give birth at any time, she drove 13 hours from Cannes to Croatia with her husband and straight to the hospital, where she gave birth to her son. Twelve hours later, the festival received a call – she had won the Camera d’Or award for best first feature film, would she like to attend the ceremony? “I mean, of course I couldn’t go back to Cannes, no!” laughs Kusijanović.
But you wouldn’t pass that on to him. After spending an entertaining hour with Kusijanović, it’s clear that she’s a force of nature, no frills, outspoken with a fiery and funny sense of humor. She speaks on Zoom from Texas, where she is working on her second film. Nine-month-old Petrus (Cannes awarded him lifetime accreditation in honor of his timely arrival) is taking a nap in the next room. His film Murina is brilliant: executive produced by Martin Scorsese and reviewed (mostly) ecstatically. Variety’s reviewer compared him to Patricia Highsmith, “if Highsmith had ever written a coming-of-age story on the rocky coast and clear waters of Croatia”. Appropriately, 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 of our time, about machismo, ego and stifling masculinity. This is the story of a 16-year-old girl named Julija (Gracija Filipović), who grows up in a peaceful Croatian fishing village with her fisherman father, Ante (Leon Lučev), and her mother, Nela (Danica Curcic). . For tourists, their existence seems idyllic. But Ante is a controlling and petulant patriarchal figure who demands complete obedience from his wife and daughter. Like a psychological thriller or an escape film, the question is: can Julija free herself from her father and the conformist values of her community?
What’s been fascinating about Murina’s showing in Croatia, says Kusijanović, is that misogyny is so ingrained that some people miss it as a theme. “They’ll say, ‘What’s going on in this movie? It’s a normal family. Nothing really happens.’ Is Ante’s controlling behavior rationalized by the public as part of Croatian culture? Kusijanović nods vigorously “Yes! But it’s not the culture, it’s not the mentality. That’s wrong!” Coming into her stride, she puts her finger on the screen. “People think it’s normal: it’s our Mediterranean hot blood or whatever. “It’s just violence. We can sing with passion and cook good fish. That’s the mentality. The rest is violence.” It drives her crazy when she’s in Croatia. “I have arrhythmia when I leave the airport in a taxi.” She catches herself and bursts out laughing. “I’m really bad. How is that going to sound?”
Kusijanović was born in Dubrovnik, to a family that couldn’t be further from Julija’s in the film. Her mother is a successful art restorer and painter. “I was very lucky to grow up in a family of very strong women. In fact, I discovered feminism very late. I didn’t know that I had to call myself a feminist because there was just a mode feminist life in our family. She became a child actress, working from the age of six, mostly in theatre. “I was very outgoing and outgoing. I would be the one who would gather the children from my street for a theater performance. From the age of five, I was conducting, in fact.
It was also during this time that Kusijanović’s childhood was swept away by the violence of the Balkan Wars. Her family fled Croatia as refugees in 1991, living abroad for a few years, first in Italy, then in a monastery in Austria, and finally in Germany. “I thought it was a trip. My mom was really amazing at pulling this 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 teacher was worried enough to call her mother. “I wrote dark poems. ‘My city is bleeding’ – that was the name of a poem. I wrote 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 his family, they encountered an oncoming car. As the two cars passed, the other car drove towards a mine: “Our front wheel was 10 cm from the landmine. The other car exploded in the air and crashed into our car. The guy driving was decapitated. I was seven years old. I have seen everything. She says that one day she would like to write a story, something with a fantasy element, of a childlike view of war.
How has being a child of war shaped her? Kusijanović pauses for a moment, deep in thought. “From an early age, I had a very strong sense of time. I think that’s what shaped me the most. I don’t think there’s anything worse than not exploiting your time and your potential. It’s a real sin.” Another long pause. “War is a very stupid thing. There is no good reason to be in a war.” She must be watching the horror in Ukraine very closely, I say. “Yes of course. It’s awfully familiar.
At 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 MA, she decided to make a documentary about a labor dispute between union and non-union construction workers in her New York neighborhood. It sounded funny: one day someone brought in a giant inflatable rat. “It was really fascinating until I scratched too deeply.” After being trailed by heavyweights for a few days, things turned sour. First intimidation: “They said to abandon this story, otherwise I risk disappearing.” She told them where to stick it. When the threats turned physical, the police advised him to stop his film.
It sounds terrifying. She shrugs. “If you’re not fighting for something that matters, you shouldn’t be doing anything. I would never direct a cute story. I do not have time. Because, you know, I can die tomorrow.
What she expects, however, is something on the scale of a superhero movie. Even before I ask the question, she answers: “I want to do that! If you know someone who’s going to offer me that, I’m willing to go. I wouldn’t guess it.