When she was four years old, her mother used to take Croatian rising star Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović to the theater. At seven, she was very eclectic and always wanted to perform. So, she started acting in a city theater in Dubrovnik where she stayed until she was eighteen. Then, something changed. Growing up, she realized that acting was not her “thing” anymore, but she still wanted to stay surrounded with the same type of people. She applied to the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, Croatia, as a producer because she felt she understood the industry, and thought she could make it happen from having eleven years of acting experience in the theater. So, she studied Theater Production and as it is attached to Film at the Academy in Zagreb, she went on to do an internship at Greenestreet Films in New York City. Later, her short film “Into the Blue” premiered in the Generation 14Plus program of the 2017 Berlinale, where it won the Special Jury Mention for Best Short Film, after which it successfully toured the film festival circuit, earning numerous awards, including the Heart of Sarajevo for Best Short Film and a nomination for a Student Academy Award. She is an alumna of the Cinéfondation Résidence du Festival de Cannes, the Jerusalem Film Lab, the Berlinale Talents Lab, the Sarajevo Talents Lab, La Fémis Producing Atelier and the Marcie Bloom Fellowship. She holds an MFA in Directing from Columbia University in New York and a Masters’ in Producing from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, Croatia.
Tara Karajica talks to Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović about her debut feature, “Murina,” the story of a teenage girl who decides to replace her controlling father with his wealthy foreign friend during a weekend trip to the Adriatic Sea. “Murina,” has just premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and was produced by Martin Scorsese among others.
Murina is, in a way, an extension of your award-winning short film Into the Blue. In that sense, in the short, we see Julija and her mother escaping the abusive pater familias. Is that the same father they’re running away from in the short? Have they now come back to him?
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović: No. That’s a good question. Actually, the plots are not connected at all. I don’t think it’s a sequel either. Thematically, I’m in the same “nature versus nurture” setting as in Into the Blue. The character of Julija here is similar in her relationship to violence. I think, in that sense, it’s a continuation of Into the Blue – staying in the same world of this relationship to violence, to nature, but plot-wise, I don’t think they are connected. The last time we spoke, we touched upon how in Into the Blue, these characters were children acting as adults and how these children are very complex and are somehow in these sort of Othellian relationships. In Murina, I wanted to portray adults acting as children at this crossroads in life where they are conflicted between responsibility and their own egos. So, it’s again a foursome, but now the adults are childlike while the only child among them is the most adult of them all.
In Murina, it’s a different kind of violence you touch upon, but you mainly delve into topics like chauvinism/sexism, family control, teenage rebellion, freedom and female strength, or lack thereof. Can you talk about that?
A.A.K.: I agree with you. The setting where Julija finds herself is chauvinistic; it is called “mentality” where we come from and it’s taken as a status quo, like something completely normal, which is not normal to the new generation that is looking at it from a different perspective, but violence is still very much within Julija. She is being raised in this environment, and the question is: is she going to get revenge for her redemption or is she going to be redeemed by forgiveness to overcome the violence that is either inherited or acquired?
Julija is very much a product of today, of the woke generation, and she’s not accepting what she doesn’t want for herself anymore. She was raised in this environment, and she’s very strong-willed and very androgynous and her strength comes from the water. Can you talk about her?
A.A.K.: She’s very androgynous, yes. It was a choice to portray her that way. To sensualize her rather than sexualize her, and I think that she is also exuding a boyish sort of energy. She is tomboyish, and that connects her more to her father. It’s almost as if Ante really wanted to have a son. So, he created a son in his daughter and her fight in wanting to become a woman is also a fight with her father who really wants a son.
Talking about the women in the film, the two of them don’t really have a mother-daughter relationship; they’re more like friends. And, they’re very different. Julija is brave, she has guts and she stands up for herself and for what she believes in while her mother is very enigmatic, submissive, not as brave as Julija, something she resents her for and is jealous of. Can you comment on that?
A.A.K.: I think that the mother was the most complex character to write for me. It can be said that she’s submissive, that she’s beautiful, that she’s jealous, but she’s actually also really wise, and she understands both men with a distance, with the knowledge and experience that Julija does not have. And, she’s aware of the environment she is in, but she’s also aware of her not being able to raise her daughter by herself in the world. She doesn’t take this free ticket to escape because she also knows that that’s not the world she wants to raise Julija in either because she does have this wisdom that’s very nuanced and not forced. She knows that that’s not a real escape, that it’s not real. It’s not going to be the nurturing her daughter needs or wants, so she’s between a rock and a hard place, and her fault is in her inability to make a decision, but not the decision to go with one man or the other, but to make the decision that Julija finally makes, knowing that freedom lies within her own hands, not within any anchor that comes through a man.
Can you talk about Julija’s bathing suits? There’s the white one the beginning where it kind of represents her innocence. And then, you have the blue one that she wears all throughout the film. And then, she changes back to the white one where it seems that things are back to normal, but they’re not, which you see at the end of the film. Then, there’s also the juxtaposition of the mother’s red velvet dress and the bathing suits. Can you delve a little bit more in these choices?
A.K.K.: The red dress represents the sexuality and passion that Nela obviously had, and the opportunities she had to take for herself that Julija does not have. They have a different set of tools. So yes, the red dress represents something that’s left in the past, richness, possibilities, something that is now in decay, whereas Julija’s costume is something very innocent and childish in the beginning, yet not really in her character, as if she were lacking power.
I think that her swimming suit is sort of her armor.
A.K.K.: Yes. The first one is not as strong as Julija and then, when Javi comes, she finally feels good in her own skin; it’s something that’s almost like a “murina” in the sleekness, dynamic, the color and the way it vibrates with the water. And, it feels like it opened the world, the power, the strength in her; it allowed confrontation. It gave her protection and it allowed her to stand up to her father. I think that, to truly confront her demons, she needs to go back to her own skin. Without the help of this outsider.
Can you talk about the title and what “murina” means?
A.K.K.: A murina is a moray eel. It literally means a moray eel, an animal that once it is trapped, it bites everything it occurs to it in order to free itself, including its own flesh. And, for me, that is Julija. She’s ready to attack. She’s ready to even destroy her family, and ultimately, she’s ready to sacrifice, jeopardize her own self in order to gain freedom.
The underwater scenes are a very big part of the film. The island itself and the water are characters in their own right. There’s also this stark contrast between the beauty of the place and these people’s unhappiness.
A.K.K.: Yes, we were very careful with this with cinematographer Hélène Louvart in terms of the location we wanted to choose and how to actually film them. It was very important not to make a postcard, because that’s so easy. The beauty was everywhere around the island. So, nature plays a very important role. The underwater as well. It has one texture when she’s with her father and another one when she’s with Javier and another one when she’s alone and that one is almost like a uterus, like a place she’s being born again in, but the water either has life or shade in it. Also, above the water, we were really going for locations that have no vegetation, that are very dry, that are almost just stone. So, the characters can really be like raw flash burning; they’re really burning in their desire, their violence, their anger… They’re exposed with no place to hide. And, that was our intention.
Summer is always the symbol of freedom, rebirth, (re)discovery in films, especially in coming-of age-stories, but here you go the other way and you don’t go down the obvious path which would be to sexualize Julija using the character of the outsider as a catalyst, but you use him for a more subtle, mature and inner awakening.
A.K.K.: Julija is very strong-willed and she understands the dynamics in their lives and yet, she does not. She’s green. She’s young. She’s brave, but she still has so much to learn, and it was important for me to build on an unknown emotion that surprises her, that she hasn’t been aware of, something that grows within her that is a rivalry with her mother, something that is conquering her father, that there is a sensuality that she discovers within herself, her developing body and her own desires that she may have even been ashamed of.
There are a lot of parallels with Into the Blue, mainly in the opening scene and the end. It’s like an homage to your short film. Am I right?
A.K.K.: You’re absolutely right! The end in Into the Blue can be both interpreted as the end of an era or the death of a part of yourself, or a detachment from yourself, and it ends on a melancholic note. Actually, I think that both endings have, for me, a connection with the divine, with something bigger than us, something that takes us a little bit outside of the intimacy of the story and puts it in a grander way of thinking about life. And, Murina ends on a more positive note, on maybe the need to regroup and it poses the question of what is next, what is the unknown we are heading to and how much courage do we have to trust in it. With that last scene, I really wanted to make people remember that they have within themselves this courage to swim into the wide waters of the unknown as young adults and that’s something that inevitably loses its strength over the years. That was something that was important for me – to remind the audience of that resilience that is in us and is something priceless.
There has been a lot of discussion about women in film in the past four years. What’s your take on the matter? Have you seen any change since #metoo?
A.K.K.: I think it’s too early to speak of a major change. We could definitely see more female films at festivals. But I think to see more films made by women financed, there needs to be more films in production and with pre-production support. So, we could have more choices once we are in the position to present our work which needs to be supported on a financing level.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and a favorite female filmmaker?
A.K.K.: I always go back to a classic. That is a film that speaks to all women and somehow is close to the themes of rivalry and mother and daughter. For me, it’s always The Piano by Jane Campion. It’s just an incredible film that is ageless.
What are you working on next?
A.K.K.: So, for the next project, I am moving to North America, to New York and the Balkan diaspora. The main character is Stanka who is a woman in her forties and who once she’s betrayed by her husband who cheats on her and she confronts him, she gets this backslap from the tribe that threatens to kick her out and does not give her the same rights as a man.
Photo credits: La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs.
This interview was conducted online during the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.