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.
24-year-old Lyons Township High School graduate has completed her first documentary
feature film to widespread critical acclaim.
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
"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
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."
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.
from Page 3
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
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
process is so hard and so rewarding," she said. "It's a love-hate
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
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
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."
about the film is available online at www.freedomfromdespair.com.