American Croatian filmmaker Brenda Brkušić “We need to continue to support one another and work together to advance our history, culture and art on the world stage”

Josip LONČARIĆ

Young American Croatian filmmaker Brenda Brkusic embarked on a difficult mission several years ago when she decided to tell a story that many Croatians had heard or experienced before, but that had not been documented. The Californian of Croatian descent meticulously detailed the plight of her father as a young man fleeing his homeland in search of a better future for himself and his future family away from the oppressive Yugoslav regime. Released in 2004, ‘Freedom from despair’ earned Brkusic numerous plaudits worldwide for her confronting portrayal of the old regime, the strive for Croatian independence and the difficulties faced by all migrants when forced to leave their family and their home.

In this week’s edition of the Croatian Herald, Brenda Brkušić talks exclusively about her film’s impact, success and future projects that involve Croatia and her people.

- CROATIAN HERALD (CH): After the success of your documentary ‘Freedom from Despair’ and its continued popularity amongst Croatians worldwide, how would you best describe the journey from the film’s release to the present day?

- BRENDA BRKUŠIĆ (BB): Making this film was the best thing I have ever done in my life. It has brought me so much personal satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment, because I was able to tell the story on a large scale that my parent’s generation wanted to tell so badly. It brought closure to so many people suffering and set the record straight for so many truths about the Croatian struggle for independence. I’ve won a lot of awards for the film since then, including the CINE Golden Eagle Award that was previously awarded to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I was recognised by the United States Congress on the Congressional Record of the US House of Representatives for making this film, and was invited to Bruxelles to show the film to members of the EU at the International Leaders Summit for Economic freedom at the European Parliament. The film has been shown to the people who have a direct impact on Croatia’s future and security as a nation. I would have to say that one of the biggest accomplishments was getting American television network PBS (Public Broadcasting System) to air the film during prime time and that was a strong testament to the power of this documentary. Never before has the Croatian story of persecution and survival been told in English in a true to life documentary on American Television. Having the support of PBS, the most trusted brand in American media, really helped give the film the visibility it deserved and helped bring some justice and truth to the Croatian people.

 

- CH: How has the support from the Croatian community worldwide helped the film and yourself personally to gain recognition and acknowledgment?

- BB: Croatians worldwide have shown their support at screenings and through DVD sales. The DVD sales are making it possible for me to pay back the debts from the film and consider making more films for our community. The greatest ‘thank you’ anyone could give me for making this film is to support it by purchasing a copy. This was not a studio produced movie, but rather an independent film financed by a 22-yearold girl and so support from the Croatian community, both through promotional efforts and through DVD sales will help this film go further, will help our message go further and will ensure that our true story remains alive long after our parent’s generation has passed. The most gratifying part of this time period has been the overwhelmingly positive and emotional responses I have gotten from people after viewing the film. I truly enjoyed meeting so many Croatians in Australia and Canada who have the same passion for the homeland that I do. Their tears and their thanks have meant the world to me. I am just so happy that my film moves them and touches them so deeply, that it gets to the spirit that is inside all of us as Croatians. I can’t thank those that have shown their support enough.

 

- CH: What projects have you been working on since the film’s release, and what can we expect from Brenda Brkušić in the future?

- BB: Currently I am working for a television station as a channel manager and producer, and recently I completed a short documentary about problems and shortcomings in the US voting system and what happens when voters are uninformed. That aired on PBS and has been submitted by the station for Emmy Award consideration. In the autumn I will continue co-producing a new film on a Croatian subject called ‘Mia: A Dancer’s Odyssey’. The famous actress Blythe Danner will voice the documentary. Mia Čorak Slavenska was one of the most celebrated ballerinas of the 20th century and Croatia’s greatest dancer. She came of age during an explosive time of dance in an era that witnessed the birth of ballet modernism and modern dance. She danced through a dark time of Western history when powerful nationalist currents swept through Western society inexorably into a second world war and spawned unthinkable cataclysms. When asked to dance on the world stage she proudly proclaimed herself a representative of Croatia. But the Yugoslav government wouldn’t have this. She escaped the looming war in 1939 by immigrating to the United States with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Yet, while politics buffeted Mia Slavenska and those she loved, she insulated herself in her world of dance and art. An expatriated artist, she pioneered her art and was one of a handful of artists who changed the face of American culture by introducing Americans to ballet. Mia Slavenska died in Los Angeles in 2002, believing that she had been completely forgotten, not only in the United States, but also in her native Croatia. The only time she would return to her beloved homeland was in a casket. Her story is representative of so many Croatians that were forced to give up their national identity and their homeland and to start a new life in a new land, while always keeping the homeland and the dream of a free Croatia close at heart.

 

- CH: What is the state of the Croatian community in the United States from your own perspective and is it still alive and well?

- BB: The community is still going strong and we need films like this to remind us of all we have been through to get to where we are today. It’s easy to forget as time passes, but if you pop this film in your DVD player every Croatian independence day, you will remember what it felt like when we weren’t so fortunate. We need to continue to support one another and work together to advance our history, culture and art on the world stage.

 

- CH: How does the documentary ‘Searching for a Storm’ relate to your own film?

- BB: I have not seen the completed version of ‘Searching for a Storm’, however my instincts tell me that ‘Freedom from Despair’ and ‘Searching for a Storm’ would make a good companion DVD set for people to have in their homes, since my film tells the Croatian story from WWII to 1996 and Jack’s (Barić) film tells a specific post-war story from the late 1990s to the present day. Australians can purchase Freedom from Despair DVDs at all of Jack Barić’s upcoming screenings for ‘Searching for a Storm’ in Australia. They can also be purchased through the following merchants: - Zagreb Croatian Bookshop in Preston, Victoria, phone (03) 94847236 - Hrvatska Knjiga in Fairfield, NSW at www.hrvatskaknjiga. com.au phone (02) 9728 6207. - www.croatiagifts.com - www.freedomfromdespair. com If any organisation, church or club would like to obtain copies of the film at a highly discounted rate to sell as a fundraising item, please email Brenda at freedomfromdespair@ yahoo.com