Local News

Marymount grad recognized for Croatia film

By Rebecca Villaneda, Peninsula News
Friday, May 23, 2008 6:25 PM PDT

Brenda Brkusic, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident and Marymount College graduate, recently released a documentary that explores the history of Croatia intertwined with her father’s experience in the once communist-ruled country. The film, “Freedom From Despair,” has been shown on PBS and has garnered a list of awards.

As a kid, Brenda Brkusic didn’t know the full extent of her father’s persecution for being a young Catholic in Croatia. But the story would rightfully unfold when the budding filmmaker chose to tell her father’s story through her senior thesis in a documentary she wrote, directed, produced and edited, “Freedom From Despair.”

Brkusic said Croatia’s obscure history, mixed with her father’s experience, was the perfect premise for her film.

“People didn’t really know what was going on — it was hard to get the right information, and it was very confusing for people, so I think that inspired me,” Brkusic said. “I wanted to try to give a voice to people who don’t normally have one.”


The 27-year-old was recently highlighted in OC Metro’s “40 under 40,” which recognizes Orange County’s most successful young entrepreneurs and executives.

Brkusic splits her work schedule between her Rancho Palos Verdes home-office production company and working as a channel manager at KOCE-TV’s OC Channel.

The Illinois native came to Los Angeles at 18 to attend Marymount College in RPV before graduating from Chapman University, in the city of Orange, where she majored in film and television.

For her documentary, Brkusic spent time filming in Croatia, where she found a young actor to play her father. She interweaves scenes with interviews of her father, Kruno Brkusic, to capture his escape to Italy.

“He escaped on foot to Italy in 1956 because they were taking a lot of refugees from other communist countries during that time,” Brkusic said. “It was around the time of the Hungarian Revolution and a lot of Hungarians were escaping and a lot of people were escaping from Yugoslavia, especially Croatians because of oppression they suffered.”

Italy welcomed the refugees and Kruno called it home for about a year, Brkusic said.

Before he fled from Croatia, Brkusic said her father was held in political prison as a child until he was 17.

“He didn’t tell his parents because he was afraid they would persuade him otherwise — he didn’t want anyone to know — if they couldn’t punish you, they would punish a relative even if they had nothing to do with it,” Brkusic said. “Millions of people escaped. It was either that or join the Communist Party and do what they said. Many people who stayed and joined the party had better lives than the people who stayed and didn’t want to join the party, so he had no choice but to escape.”

The people of Croatia were taxed without representation, and money ended up in Serbia. Croatians didn’t have many options at the time, Brkusic said. They could be imprisoned or sent to the Goli Otok concentration camp or simply killed, she said.

“I paint a very different picture of Josip Broz Tito in my film then people are used to hearing in the west. He was one of the bloodiest dictators of our time and I bring light to the atrocities that occurred under his reign,” Brkusic added.

In Italy, Kruno was recruited by the United States Army and he was sent to New York, then served in Alaska before settling long term in Chicago.

But the concern for his country was never far behind.

During the 1990s, after communism fell in Croatia, the country was invaded by Serbian forces and turmoil persisted.

Brkusic said she has memories as a child going with her father to rallies and demonstrations urging the United States to recognize Croatia’s independence as a free democratic country.

These experiences served as the foundation for her film, Brkusic said.

“I wanted to give context to what was happening in the 1990s … You’d think [America would] recognize any country that wants democracy over communism because those are our ideals,” Brkusic said. “In the film I went into some of the political reasons certain people in the United States administration at the time didn’t want to recognize Croatia for their own business reasons. The film gets into that and investigates that.”

In 1992, the United States finally recognized Croatia, after 250,000 lives were lost.

For her film, Brkusic solicited the help of well-known actors for voice-overs, including Michael York and John Savage, and interviewed congressmen Dennis Kucinich and George Radanovich.

“[Kucinich] was forthright and honest about the fact that American administration [didn’t] really care about what happened ‘over there’ if it’s not in their interest,” Brkusic said. “That was the struggle and the plight of the Croatian people for so many years. I made this film now, even though it wouldn’t necessarily help them now … So people could understand, because in order to prevent things like this from happening in the future you have to understand what happened in the past. It’s never been clear as to what happened in that region.”

Brkusic also interviews historians, authors, survivors and a priest who witnessed the murders of Croatian Catholic clergy members under communist rule.

Mel Rogers, KOCE-TV president and general manager, said “Freedom From Despair” is an important documentation of a subject that is largely unknown to most Americans.

“When one considers the fact that [the film] was Brenda’s first film and was, essentially, a student project, I thought it remarkable. I have never seen a first project that came close to the quality of ‘Freedom From Despair,’” Rogers said. “In addition to being a talented story teller, Brenda demonstrated a stunning tenaciousness in pursuing every detail of her gigantic project — a lengthy documentary about a politically charged subject that must be shot in a foreign country with insufficient resources.

“There have been a few times in my career when I have been fortunate to employ and encourage the development of a rising star. Brenda is the latest of those stars,” Rogers added.

Upon receiving the Marion Knott Scholarship at Chapman University, Brkusic was able to work with Academy Award-winning filmmaker David F. Ward, who wrote “The Sting” and directed “Major League.” Ward offered editing pointers for “Freedom From Despair,” and has since become one of Brkusic’s mentors.

The film has garnered a list of awards and nominations, including the CINE Golden Eagle Award and Best Documentary at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

The film also was shown in Brussels for the European Union at the European Parliament.

Brkusic has some ideas up her sleeve for future projects, including one about a famous Croatian ballerina and another about the large Iranian-American community in Southern California. She also continues to work with Artists for Amnesty International and the Adopt-a-Minefield organization.

“I don’t want to give up on documentaries. I still want to make a few more, and I hope to educate and inspire other people to achieve their dreams and overcome their struggles and be a voice for the people — I think that’s probably my calling,” Brkusic said.

For more information or to purchase the film, visit