Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic has spent years training and establishing herself in the film industry. Last year, the producer, screenwriter and director launched her first feature film “Murina”. It’s a coming-of-age family drama that explores the unhappy home life of rebellious 17-year-old Julija (Gracija Filipovic) caught between her overbearing father, Ante (Leon Lucev), and weak mother, Nela. . (Danica Curcic). The teenager feels trapped in the fishing village where she lives, but finds freedom by swimming and snorkeling in the idyllic blue waters of the Adriatic Sea in Croatia. A visit from his father’s old friend Javier (Cliff Curtis) only heightens the already simmering tensions between them.
The life of the theater
Before becoming an award-winning director, Kusijanovic’s first passion was drama. At the age of six, she began acting in a local professional theater in Dubrovnik, Croatia, although her mother began taking her to theaters when she was four years old.
She remembers “talking vividly to the actors” and how fascinated she was by the way they transformed on stage. “I love the theater life,” she says. However, she never thought of pursuing an acting career, so she ended up getting a master’s degree in production from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb.
During her studies, she worked in theater production, management and online production, but part of her education was to study film.
A traumatic childhood event
At the age of seven, Kusijanovic witnessed a horrific car explosion. Her father took the family on a trip to buy a Christmas tree. As they drove down this narrow, windy road in Dubrovnik near a hill, a car came from the opposite direction. His father’s car veered off the road a few inches to let the car in front pass, but the other car ended up running over an anti-tank mine and exploding. The mine was probably planted on the road during the Croatian War of Independence between 1991 and 1995.
“It was a very inexplicable experience,” she recalls, adding that “people who [say they] learning from trauma is lying to themselves, and people who accept having experienced trauma are actually healed. I do not know if that’s true.
Years later, she made a short film called “Christmas Tree” about this event. “It was a really big production, because I blew up the car and dug up the ground and the asphalt to be really honest with the experience,” she says. “But I never finished it. I didn’t want to distribute that film for some reason.
During the making of this film, she chose Gracija Filipovic to play the role of one of the passengers in the car that exploded. Filipovic was in the film “for exactly five seconds”, but left a big impression on Kusijanovic, who would reunite with the young actress a few years later.
First brush to realization
Once Kusijanovic finished her studies in Croatia, she moved to New York. There she ended up landing a film internship, but soon realized that wasn’t what she wanted to do, so for about two months she got a job at a construction company working in project management. She recalls the money being great, but it was a battle between union employees and the company that really caught her interest.
She remembers employees who placed coffins in front of construction company buildings and claimed they were dead. “It was very theatrical and I thought, ‘This is a great subject. I want to record this. I want to remember this…and I want to do a documentary about this,'” she explains. started filming it, “and that’s how I became a director, I think!
She made a short film, but never shared it with the general public. However, Kusijanovic showed it to a friend of hers, Dylan Leiner, executive vice president of acquisitions and production at Sony Pictures Classics, who thought she “should really direct.” Kusijanovic said she wanted to give it a try and after meeting some Columbia University alumni, she enrolled in her Masters of Fine Arts program in directing/screenwriting.
Make your short film
While attending film school in New York, Kusijanovic wrote and directed the short film “Into the Blue.” As a setting, she chose the coastal region of Croatia to tell the story of 13-year-old Julija and her mother. They flee their violent home and find refuge on an idyllic island in the Adriatic Sea.
The student filmmaker hit the road to make the film, which was expensive. “Even if it looks very simple, having the children on the rocks is complicated for safety, so it was a very big production”, she recalls.
She then launched a general casting call for swim-trained actors. Filipovic, who is a competitive swimmer, auditioned for the role, and the two collaborated again.
“She was just perfect. She already had a bit of theater experience. She was striking. She worked hard. And she had to speak very little to express what she [felt] inside,” says Kusijanovic.
“Into the Blue” won awards at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, among others, and was nominated for a Student Academy Award.
Creation of “Murina”
After working with Filipovic for a second time, the Croatian filmmaker decided to write “Murina” specifically for the young actress.
But the filming turned out to be a difficult business. “Murina” was shot on three different islands off the Croatian coast. The islands are about nine hours apart, making production even more labor intensive. Kusijanovic, however, was determined it was an “absolutely necessary” tool to tell this story.
“I didn’t want green trees in the nature that I represent. I really wanted to have bare stones and rocks, and I wanted the house to feel the same,” she explains.
She found a 16th century house on an island without lush greenery. It was surrounded by olive trees, which, she said, “are the gray and silver kind. The way the environment around people really defines the way people are in their movement, their psychology, their intent.
One of the islands was selected to shoot only for the underwater scenes. Because the filmmaker had scouted this area for “Into the Blue,” she knew it would be less risky to film there.
“To shoot underwater, in a natural environment, not in a swimming pool, you really have to know not only what it looks like underwater, but you also have to know the type of weather underwater, which is hard to detect and very expensive,” she explains. “There can be a mix of cold and warm currents, then it’s completely foggy and you can’t see anything.”
Collaboration with the director of photography Hélène Louvart
To get the best underwater images for “Murina,” Kusijanovic needed help, and she was able to recruit and rely on the expertise of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, who worked on “The Lost Daughter.” .
“Hélène was the most beautiful, gentle, kind, visionary, doula collaborator. I couldn’t imagine a better person to make this movie,” she says.
Filming underwater wasn’t the only challenge. They also had a complicated script to work out because “almost everything is told from the girl’s point of view, but you constantly have four people in the scene together, over the sea, under the sea, by the sea, in bathing suits. bath,” observes Kusijanovic.”[It was] a nightmare to shoot – in the sun with no shadows, complicated staging, no cover sets.
So it took Kusijanovic a few drafts to achieve the “best visually possible version”, after “combining all the elements” and working with the creative team.
Collaboration with Martin Scorsese
Kusijanovic also involved Martin Scorsese in the production, and he became one of the film’s executive producers. The veteran director had a working relationship with RT Features to support first-time and second-time filmmakers, and “Murina” was chosen to be part of that collaboration.
When she met Scorsese, she recalls, he “held my hand and said, ‘You’re in very good hands,’ and I felt I was in very good hands. .”
During post-production, he looked at several of the cuts, but “he didn’t have a lot of notes. He was like, ‘You know, what’s best about the movie is because you spent the most time in it. You know that better than anyone watching it right now,” she remarks.
“Murina” wins Cannes.
“Murina” won the Camera d’Or for Best First Feature at the 74th Cannes Film Festival in 2021. Kusijanovic was pregnant during that experience and is reflecting on the award.
“I really felt like it was the ultimate creation. I was able to make a film, but I was really like, ‘Okay, I’m giving life, and this is the best experience I can have as I deliver my film to the world,’” she says.
However, the film was not nominated for an Oscar, which she thinks is “a little strange”, but decided not to dwell too much on why it happened, although she think “it was a bit of a missed opportunity for my country”. The film won three other awards and received several nominations.
“Murina” now has a limited theatrical release, distributed by Kino Lorber.