November 28, 2005
Written by Snjezana Ivic
Translated by Martin Kolega
Success for Director Brenda Brkusic
CROATIA’S STORY LEAVES ITS MARK ON HOLLYWOOD
Recently, Congressman Dennis Kucinich gave a speech in the American Congress in Washington in honor and recognition of Brenda Brkusic and her film "Freedom from Despair". This was one of the greatest thanks that the young filmmaker, who is of Croatian decent, has received: "Mr. Speaker, I rise today in honor and recognition of filmmaker Brenda Brkusic. Brenda is a courageous and hard working young woman who has been identified as a visionary in the Croatian community. At the age of twenty-one, Brenda started working on the film "Freedom from Despair" as her student thesis at Chapman University in Los Angeles, California. Her film has been met with critical acclaim, and has won countless awards, including the CINE Golden Eagle award, which previously been awarded to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Her peers have recognized her as an emerging talent in the film industry, and a remarkable human being. Mr. Speaker and Colleagues, please join me in honor and recognition of Ms. Brenda Brkusic, the writer, producer and editor of "Freedom from Despair" for her hard work encouraging human rights and personal triumph over evil".
*FATHER’S INSPIRATION – Just looking at the kind, twenty-four year old Brenda Brukusic, she is truly a tough lady. There is no other way to describe the dedication and success of her debut as a director of the documentary, which she financed herself with the help of her parents, friends, and family. In a year’s time she produced the film with them and has even won 11 awards in 20 film festivals throughout the world where she has shown her film. Last week Brenda was a guest in the international film festival about Croatian immigrants in the Zagreb cinema "Europa", where her heartfelt film was seen in front of a packed theater. With the film about her father, Krunoslav’s, escape from Yugoslavia and his fight for international recognition of Croatia, Brenda graduated form Chapman University. As one of five students picked from eight hundred, Brenda received the "Marion Knott" scholarship, which gave her the opportunity to work with well known director David S. Ward, winner of the Oscar for "The Sting" and director of popular films, including "Major League" with Charlie Sheen. Brenda found inspiration for the film "Freedom from Despair" within her family, namely her father, Krunoslav Brkusic. He was born in Bogomolje on the island of Hvar and in 1957 escaped from the communist regime and made it to Italy as a political immigrant. He eventually made it to the United States and Chicago, where he was successful in starting up his company, Industrial Service Products. In 1967 he began a family and married his wife, Grozdana Dianna Ukas, an immigrant from Jezera on the island of Murter. Together they afforded their children, Brenda and Brian, a comfortable life in the "promised land". Brenda was only ten years old when the war in Croatia began. Her mother and father were active in the Croatian community and fought against the pro-Serbian propaganda in the American media. As a young girl, she followed her parents to demonstrate in Washington D.C., where over 40,000 Croatians came together from all over the United States to put pressure on then President George Bush and the American administration to recognize their homeland and stop the bloody war. She watched as her furious father called up every television and radio station in Chicago and pleaded with them to help stop the fighting in Vukovar. Brenda first visited Croatia in 1996. She said, "I only then realized how much despair there must have been for Croatians to leave their country, one of the most beautiful in the world". That is how the idea for the film came about. Thanks to this, congressman Dennis Kucinich felt the need to mention her extensive persistence in front of other American Congressmen. Brenda was able to gather a significant team of people to help with the film. She began searching the internet and sent e-mails to many Croatians, including for example, Tony Dizdar from Cleveland, who told the story of his brother Marko and offered to set up an interview with him. Brenda was also able to make contact with Dennis Kucinich, who at that time was competing with George Bush in their respective presidential campaigns and also appears in the film. Also in the film is Californian congressman George Radanovich, who is of Croatian decent. Brenda also sent an e-mail to Nenad Bach, our reputable musician who works in New York. Bach has worked with many known actors, including Michael York and John Malkovich. Brenda asked Nenad to compose a score for her film and also asked him to help find some well known actors to work on the film, which would bring more publicity to her project. Nenad positively replied to Brenda and asked her to accompany him to a humanitarian dinner sponsored by the "Adopt a Minefield" in Los Angeles, which was organized by Heather Mills and Paul McCartney. They sat at the same table as John Savage, Michael York, and Beata Pozniak. Being a young film student, Brenda took advantage of that evening to explain the project that she was working on and to ask if they would be willing to help.
*YUGO TEROR – I gave Michael York my business card and figured that he would forget about me the next day, this didn’t happen. A year later Nenad called him and asked if he would like to have a part in the film, Michael immediately said yes and remembered the time we met and the energy I had talking about the film and the Croatian people’s struggle for their country. John Savage and Beata Pozniak remembered me in the same way and all three took part, taping the narration and lending their voices to the Croatian witnesses who didn’t speak English. In thanks, I gave everything I had to make their taping experience the most professional it could be. Those type of people are very busy, many of them turn down countless appeals for help. I’m so happy that they gave up their time for me.
The film had its world premiere over a year ago at the Amnesty International Film Festival, Amnesty International is a supporter of the film and their an organization which saved Marko Dizdar, an interviewee in the film. He was arrested and thrown in jail as a political prisoner at the age of 23 and finally made it to freedom after being there 11 years, alive and thankful because of help from Amnesty International.
The film follows the fate of Brenda’s father, Kruno, and tells about living under Tito’s regime, taking us through Goli Otok and Lepoglava prisons, and shows the bloody socialism that the United States believed was a more human than that of other eastern block countries, even though Yugoslavia had the most political prisoners (per capita). Witnesses talk about their experiences as immigrants and their escape from jail. An NBC report also spoke of Tito’s lie that life was good in Yugoslavia, which showed the empty shelves of grocery stores and poverty in the backdrop of the Olympic Games in Sarajevo. The Yugoslav police at that time took the reporters in for questioning, while another outspoken person was sent to jail for seven years. Of value in the film is the countless number of documentary film archives that she was able to collect from HRT and other American television stations, showing the suffering of people during the war in Croatia, of the helpless in Vukovar, and of the mass graves…
Even though we are talking about a relatively low budget production, Brenda throws her hands in the air when thinking about the money she borrowed to shoot the film. She didn’t ask us for much other than to thank the countless number of Croatians in the diaspora who have collected donations for the film. She showed the film to Croatian emigrants in clubs in the United States and Canada, and two weeks ago she returned from a tour in Australia.
In Sydney, the film was seen by more than 700 people in just one showing. I was very pleased that the Croatians there already knew and heard about the film. After seeing the film they came to me and said many words of thanks: "This was my life’s story, I’m so happy that someone was able to put it on film. Thank you!" Regardless of how much money I spent on the film, it pays off when I have the experience of meeting such people.
*HEARTS FOR THE STARS – She was most surprised by the strong role of the American actors. While Michael York was already known as a friend of Croatia and was even the head of the committee to rebuild Dubrovnik and with his wife, Pat, frequently visit Croatia, John Savage was totally surprised. He is well known for his work in humanitarian projects, answered Brenda’s call to help, and was speechless after the first time he saw the film:
"John told me that he had no idea what was happening to the Croatian people. He even admitted that at that time he protested against Croatia being recognized as a country because he thought we were the aggressors. The media campaign against us was truly strong, Americans were confused, and Croatians were frustrated because they couldn’t break through with the truth and correct all of the lies. When John Savage saw the film, he was in shock. I think that was the reason he took it upon himself to help with the promotion of the film, appearing at many festivals, and taking pictures together and introducing me to the media and other filmmakers, including Michael Moore, director of the film "Fahrenheit 9/11". Now, when he knows the truth, he wishes to promote it. Many Americans found it hard to believe America’s refusal to intervene. They were unaware that there were economic interests involved and that the then American ambassador, Lawrence Eagleburger, worked for Yugoslavian banks and for the "Red Flag" carmaker."
During the St. Blaise dinner organized by the Libertas Foundation held in Los Angeles, Brenda thanked the stars that helped her with the film and presented them with Croatian heart awards for their efforts. The young director hopes that, after the festivals, the film will be shown on television programs around the world so that a greater number of people know about Croatia’s story.