LIBERTY SUBURBAN CHICAGO NEWSPAPERS

Her Father's Film

LT grad wins critical acclaim for movie on father's flight from oppression

Published: 8/17/05

When Brenda Brkusic made a short film about Abraham Lincoln in eighth grade, the former Indian Head Park resident had no idea she had found her calling.

Today, the 24-year-old Lyons Township High School graduate has completed her first documentary feature film to widespread critical acclaim.

"Freedom From Despair" tells the story of her father, Kruno Brkusic, and his flight on foot from Croatia to Italy to escape an oppressive communist Yugoslav regime. He eventually made his way to the United States in 1957, where he settled in the Chicago area with his wife, Dianna, also a Croatian immigrant.

Almost 40 years later, he continued to see his homeland ravaged by war during the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Kruno Brkusic became politically active in raising awareness, taking his message from street demonstrations in Chicago to the halls of Congress.

"It's a story that hasn't been told to date in English, and there has been so much propaganda in the media that the American people deserved a chance to know the truth behind Tito. They need to know about his concentration camps, the truth behind the 1990s conflict in the Balkans and America's role in it," Brkusic said.

Josip Broz Tito ruled Yugoslavia from World War II until his death in 1980. His presidency has been described as unilateral communist leadership. The Balkans is the historical and geographic name used to describe southeastern Europe. The film connects Kruno's plight as a political prisoner in the 1950s to his pursuit of justice for the Croatians in the 1990s.

Brkusic had been surrounded by activism from an early age, most likely charging her intense drive and powerful passion. She remembers, as a child attending protests with her family at Chicago's Daley Plaza and in Washington, D.C., where her father spoke on behalf of the Croatian community.

"Most of us (Croatian-American immigrants) are very thankful America gave us that opportunity to practice and experience democracy," Kruno said, during an interview from his Croatian home. "We owe it to our people to give them the support they deserve in their fight for freedom and democracy."

When she began school, Brkusic had no idea those political messages would resonate so strongly. Brkusic began creating "Freedom From Despair" when she was studying on an academic scholarship at Chapman University School of Film and Television in southern California. She moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to study film, television and dance.

"Since I was little, I knew that I would do something in the entertainment industry. I was a dancer for over 16 years, won awards for my choreography and taught dance classes to make money in college," Brkusic said.

She was able to transfer her dance talents to her new passion -- filmmaking.

"I would say that my dance education made me a better filmmaker because I acquired a sense of rhythm that is necessary for finding beats in scenes that I direct. It helps me plan the creative movement of my shots, and that helps me with pacing while editing a feature-length film."

"I knew I could do more through film than dance," she said.

Once Brkusic decided on her career path and subject matter, she began working diligently.

"I would only sleep one or two hours a night for a couple years," she said.

She had to do almost everything associated with creating the film herself or solicit her classmates to help her by working for free. Although the work is grueling, Brkusic has had the opportunity to work with academy award winning filmmaker David S. Ward, who wrote "Sleepless in Seattle" and directed the "Major League" films, in addition to other film professionals.

"You have to be prepared to give up many things for this business if you want to succeed -- it is so competitive," she lamented. "I've given up all my hobbies and time with my friends, for the time being. I often don't even have time to pay attention to my own health, but the art of surviving is learning how to find a way to balance all of those things you love doing with your work and health."

A common misconception about the film industry is that it is all glamour and no sweat. The public sees the red carpet events and gets a glimpse at the parties, but often is not exposed to the entire process.

"I work harder than anyone I know who is not a filmmaker," Brkusic said. "Work never ends when you're passionate about a project."

Brkusic's passion and diligence garnered the attention of several actors, as well as U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-10th District, of Ohio, who visited Croatia during the 1990s war and is interviewed in "Freedom From Despair." Beata Pozniak, who appeared in Oliver Stone's "JFK," agreed to narrate a portion of the film.

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"When Beata Pozniak was asked by a student at USC (University of Southern California) when we showed the film there why she agreed to work for free on a student film, she said it was the determination and passion that she recognized in me that made her want to do it -- the same kind of passion Oliver Stone saw in her when he gave her a lead role in 'JFK.' She said she knew that with her or without her, I was going to go and do things in life, so she decided to go with me."

The film also features John Savage from "The Deer Hunter" as the narrator, and Michael York does voice-over work.

Brkusic shot on location in Croatia and combined news reels, first-hand interviews, stock footage and narrative re-creations to complete the film. She had to take great financial risks to make the film, and despite the film's success, remains in debt.

Three years in the making, Brkusic emphasized her ability to stay patient and identified the timeline as one of the most challenging aspects of her work. The payoff is gradual.

"The whole process is so hard and so rewarding," she said. "It's a love-hate thing."

Brkusic was forced to come face to face with former communists who are still trying to control power within Croatia's fledging democracy.

"I have exposed the crimes they committed, swept under the rug and thought would be hidden forever," she said.

As a result, there are many people who are angry with the film. Brkusic said she is sometimes scared for her safety, but credits those who are the subject of the film as far braver.

The film has won a number of awards, including the prestigious CINE Golden Eagle Award, which distinguishes excellence in professional and amateur works. The award is dedicated to discovering and rewarding emerging talent in the film industry. Past recipients of the award include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Ken Burns.

Brkusic is not fazed by achieving success so early in her career. She already landed a freelance job with MTV and is in negotiations with producers and managers interested in representing her. She has been hired by a company to show the film in high school and college classrooms. This fall, she will tour with "Freedom From Despair" to Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, Chicago and Australia.

"It's kind of surreal," Brkusic said of her recognition and success. "I never thought any of this would happen. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. It makes me want to work harder, and I know I can do more now."

More information about the film is available online at www.freedomfromdespair.com.

Megan Brody's e-mail address:
mbrody@libertysuburban.com