Monday, August 28, 2006

The respect of a father

Student filmmaker discovered the story of her life in the story of her father's life.


The Orange County Register

Maybe it's the wine.

Kruno Brkusic, a graying, serious man, is telling some American friends about his childhood in Croatia.

His daughter, Brenda, 21, hears the word "escape."

She hears him say he ran from the secret police.

Brenda Brkusic, a Chapman University student home for the holidays, is shuffling food trays in and out of the kitchen of her parents' house in Indian Head Park, Ill. It is Christmastime, 2002.

Brenda has never heard her father talk so openly about his life.

Her parents took her to political rallies in Chicago and Washington, D.C., when she was just tall enough to hold the microphone for Kruno as he addressed the crowd. She saw her father on television numerous times, demanding that someone in America do something about the atrocities going on in his home country.

She knows how passionate her parents are about Croatia.

But Brenda comes out of the kitchen astonished.

"Wait a minute," she interrupts. "You never told me about this."

Ten years ago, if you had asked Brenda Brkusic what she was going to be when she grew up, the answer would have been easy.

A dancer.

But midway through college, she dropped dance. It wasn't satisfying enough.

"Dance didn't help others," Brenda says.

She began to study film. By the beginning of her senior year in 2002, she really had no direction. She needed to make a film for her senior thesis. She considered comedies and dramas. But nothing clicked.

Then she went home for Christmas.

On the same night she heard her father's story of escape, she told her mother, Dianna, also a Croatian activist, that she knew what her senior project would be.

It would be a short film, a 15-minute fictional narrative about a teenager fleeing Croatia for Italy.

She was too nervous to tell her father, a longtime outspoken critic of the media's portrayals of Croatia.

Then, in her first few weeks of prep work, Brenda's idea fell apart. She quickly found that the story didn't fit in 15 minutes. It was too important to fictionalize. She decided to make a full-length documentary instead.

In the summer of 2003, she sent an e-mail to her mother outlining five pages worth of questions for her father.

He agreed to be interviewed on film to help his daughter get a good grade.

"He never thought this film would make it further than Chapman," Brenda says.

"Freedom from Despair" chronicles the life of Kruno Brkusic, who was jailed (several times) by communists, escaped on foot with a book of matches and a compass at 17, joined the U.S. Army in 1957 and later became a pro-Croatian activist in the United States.

Kruno grew up in a family of Catholics, who, while he was growing up, were the targets of the communist government. Later, after he escaped, the issue changed. His friends and neighbors were being killed by invading Serbian forces.

When she told her father she was going to Croatia to conduct interviews, she says he didn't believe she could pull it off.

But she raised the money for the trip, and in 2003 she took her father home.

She tracked down people who hadn't seen Kruno since the 1950s. She got footage of him swimming and rowing in the Adriatic Sea, just as he had as a child.

Kruno's daughter, who has the same drive he does, didn't stop there.

After returning to the United States, Brenda attended a Croatian political fundraising dinner, where she mustered the courage to approach movie stars Michael York, who starred in "Cabaret," "The Three Musketeers" and "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," and John Savage, who starred in "The Deer Hunter," "Do the Right Thing" and "The Thin Red Line."

She caught them at dinner and asked if they could help narrate her film.

"They must have rolled their eyes when they saw me coming," Brenda says.

But they didn't dismiss her.

"There is something about Brenda that is very hard to resist," York says. "She combines intelligence with passion and has very clear ideas about what she wants to achieve. ... I love working with young filmmakers who have all their enthusiasm and idealism intact, and not worn down or compromised by the system."

Both actors said yes.

David S. Ward, a Chapman professor and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "The Sting," helped Brenda in the editing room.

Suddenly, the little film had a big-time feel.

But it needed something else.

Brenda Brkusic needs to show the film to her father.

In 2004, Brenda flies to Illinois. She is scared to death.

"He is not impressed easily," she says.

She turns down the lights and watches Kruno watch his life story.

For more than 40 years, he has hoped someone would tell the Croatian story correctly. He called newspapers and radio and television stations. He spoke on rickety platforms to anyone who would listen.

And finally, someone tells the story the right way.

"He was crying for the whole 95 minutes," Brenda says.

When it is over, he gives her a big hug.

"I'm proud of you," he says.

In a recent interview, Kruno said he couldn't believe that his daughter's film made him cry.

"I was very surprised when I saw it," he said in a phone interview from Croatia, where he is stopped on the street by people who recognize him from the film. "I didn't think it would come out that well. I was happy that someone had done something that hadn't been done in 50 years. It was one of the first documentaries that went against the communists."

The girl who quit dance to help people has helped someone her parents.

"It was the best gift I could give them."

CONTACT US: Brenda Brkusic is a news editor/associate producer for the "Real Orange" program at KOCE-TV. Her film has been screened in Croatia, Australia, Canada and across the U.S. It has won Best Documentary at the New York International Indie Film Festival, the Hollywood International Student Film Festival and the Chapman Studios Filmmaker Awards. 949-454-7344 or