Her Father's Story

Former Marymount College student Brenda Brkusic turns her father's struggle for freedom into a multi-award-winning film. It will screen Saturday at the Westwood International Film Festival.

By Carrie Yamato Peninsula News

The vision of her parents leading demonstrations in Washington, D.C., speaking about the Croatian freedom movement in their hometown of Chicago, and urging George Bush Sr. and the media to recognize human rights in Yugoslavia left an impact on 10-year-old Brenda Brkusic.

"I didn't understand the politics but I understood the emotions of the Croatian people and saving lives," said Brkusic, who is now 24. "That stuck with me. At 10, I was too young to do anything to ease my parents' pain, so I wanted to do this."

"This" is a feature-length documentary that Brkusic wrote, produced, directed and edited. It was her senior project at Chapman University and it is now winning critical acclaim around the world -- including the CINE Golden Eagle Award, which was previously won by Steven Spielberg, best documentary at the New York International Independent Film Festival and the Remi Award for World Peace. It was also recently recognized in the congressional records.

"Freedom from Despair" is the story of Brkusic's father, Kruno Brkusic, who as a teenager risked his life fleeing from a regime that suppressed Croatian culture through state-sanctioned terror, imprisonment and exile.

It chronicles days in prison, his escape to Italy in 1957, his arrival in New York via the U.S. Army and his bittersweet sentiment toward America in the 1990s, when the government kept Yugoslavia together by supporting Josip Broz Tito and Slobaodan Milosevic.

"[The early '90s] were a hard time for him," said Brkusic. "He came here thinking [the United States] was the land of the free, but when he tried to help, he received threatening calls advising him not to talk against the State Department. All he wanted to do was to help [the Croatians] because he knew what they were going through."

The Elements

To tell her father's story, Brkusic used archival footage and interviews from her month-long stay in Croatia, where she talked with a concentration camp survivor, a priest, Croatian history authors and many family members.

"I wanted to give these people a chance to tell their stories, too," said Brkusic.

She also interviewed congressmen Dennis Kucinich and George Radanovich and secured actors Michael York, John Savage and Beata Pozniak for narrations and voiceovers.

"I wrote them letters and later called. I think they saw my passion in wanting to get the truth out, and they wanted to be a part of it," said Brkusic.

But her main source was her father.

After two days and hundreds of hours of interview footage, Brkusic has a new understanding and respect for her father, who is a successful businessman.

"My dad is a really strong person and I'm amazed by the strength he and my mom had," said Brkusic. "Even when people slammed the door in their faces, they kept trying. This is a very inspirational story that anyone can relate to."

No one could relate more to the screen than Kruno. When he first saw it, Brkusic said her dad cried through the whole film.

"I've never seen him cry before," said Brkusic. "It was an emotional release for him to see his life on film."

More than finally freeing the pent-up emotions, Kruno said it was his daughter's dedication to the project that brought tears to his eyes.

"Sure it told the story of hundreds of thousands of people and everything in there was significant, but I couldn't believe how much work she put into it," he said. "I didn't expect it to be that good. I couldn't believe how she put everything together. I am very proud of her.

"She undertook something no one wanted to do," continued Kruno. "Something people were afraid to do."

Never-ending project

Although the film is finished, Brkusic's job is far from over. She spends all of her days sending out press releases, entering competitions and trying to pay off her debts.

To finance the film, Brkusic borrowed money from family and friends. To pay them back, she is showing it to Croatian communities around the world and asking for donations. So far, she's raised tens of thousands of dollars, but is far from paying off her debts.

"I'm still working on it," she said. "Now that I want to get commercial rights for it, and it isn't viewed as just a student film, I have to pay for the footage."

Although Brkusic didn't reveal how much money she spent on "Freedom from Despair," she said a documentary runs anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 depending on the stock footage.

"CNN charges $6,000 per minute," she said. "I have 30 seconds from them and used a lot from news stations."

But all the time, money and stress, says Brkusic, are worth it.

"It's been so gratifying even with all the struggles," she said. "When 350 people show up to see the film and they want to shake my hand and they're crying telling me, 'I saw myself up there. That's how I escaped,' it's so emotional. I feel wonderful knowing that I could do that for them."

Although she is proud her story is receiving recognition and has won more than 10 awards, Brkusic hasn't lost sight of her project's purpose.

"My award for World Peace and Understanding at the Houston International Film Festival means the most to me because that that's the message of the film," she said. "To understand the differences that we have and to promote peace."

Brkusic hopes to spread her message further by getting her story on TV. She will have her chance for a distribution deal when it is screened this weekend at the Westwood International Film Festival.

"When Americans see it at film festivals, they say they had no idea this was happening [in Croatia]. They are shocked,' said Brkusic. "I'm hoping more Americans will see it. I want to do this for the Croatian people and for the next generation."

The film screening is Saturday, Oct. 1 at 4:30 p.m. at the Crest Theatre. For more information, call 474-7866 or log on to www.westwoodfilmfestival.com. For information on the film, log on to www.freedomfromdespair.com. To contact Brenda Brkusic, e-mail her at freedomfromdespair@yahoo.com.

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Copyright 2005 Copley Press, Inc.