Sarajevo Film Festival 2017. Short Talk with Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović

At this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival, “Yellow Bread” caught up with Croatian rising star, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović, whose award-winning short film “Into the Blue” is screening in the “Competition program – Short Film” section at the festival. We talked about the film, its development (through the European Short Pitch and the Short Film Station at the 2016 Berlinale Talents) and subsequent nomination for Student Academy Award, the Columbia – School of the Arts MFA program where she studied directing, her opinion of Short Film, the situation of the short form in Croatia and the U.S, the importance of having a Film Center back your film, and her next projects.



Can you talk about your background and how you got into Film?

Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović: It’s interesting. My mother used to take me to the theater when I was four years old. And then, when I was seven, I was very eclectic and I always wanted to perform. So, I started acting in a theater – a city theater in Dubrovnik – and I acted until I was probably eighteen. Then, something changed; growing up I realized that acting was not my thing anymore, but I still wanted to stay surrounded with the same type of people. I applied to the Academy of Dramatic Arts as a producer because I felt: “OK, I understand the industry, I can make it happen from having eleven years of acting experience in the theater.” So, I studied theater production and as it is attached to Film – I was doing both at the Academy in Zagreb –  I went to do an internship at Greenestreet Films in New York City. And, that was another level of my experience there and my start.

How did “Into the Blue” come about? What was your inspiration behind it?

A.A.K.: “Into the Blue” is interesting. I wrote it at Columbia University in my second year of Master’s. Actually, it came as a recalling of the first childhood memories as part of a student exercise. So, the origin of the story is an island, Kalamota, near Dubrovnik, where I grew up as a child. At first, I had images in mind and I had this idea of the potency of being young, hormones, this very severe landscape and everything that might happen there. But, also how adults take children as children, but they have fully developed characters that are really ready for anything. So, that was the germ of “Into the Blue”.

It has nothing autobiographical in it, does it?

A.A.K.: Autobiographical is the island, for sure, and the women dynamics that are happening at different times and stages of your life. Of course, there is nothing as dangerous as in the film, but it’s fiction and we need to dramatize it. And, so I did.

It was at the European Short Pitch and the Short Film Station at the Berlinale Talents in 2016. Can you talk about its development?

A.A.K.: We applied with the script – with the very first draft – to the European Short Pitch. It was wonderful. We had this meeting in Vilnius, and then in Luxemburg. They’re very supportive both with their notes around the script and their network. And then, we had wonderful visibility at the Berlinale, that continued supporting us, because that’s where we eventually premiered the film.

That’s the second film you have made with Christina Lazaridi as screenwriter. Can you talk about that collaboration?

A.A.K.: Oh! That’s a wonderful story! Christina and I, we met at Columbia. She’s an alumna of Columbia University and I was studying there when I met her. She was my screenwriting professor. So, I sat in her class and, after thirty minutes of the first class, I told her at the break: “You are going to write all of my films,” and she thought I was an insane person and, of course, she avoided me. But, six months later, as I started working on a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation – “If We Must Die” – I approached her and we really synced. Since then, we have this very, very special relationship. It’s a real partnership. It’s like when we meet, our brains make love to each other. And, sometimes, we record our meetings because it’s such an inspiration to listen to the things we come up with later… And, sometimes, there’s just no time to write everything down because it’s so fused with these creative juices.

I noticed that the Columbia Master’s program has “produced” some of the most promising and interesting up-and-coming directors right now like yourself, Mounia Akl, Francisca Alegría, Clara Roquet… What can you say about the program?

A.A.K.: I think Columbia has a good eye to recognize people in its admission. We have some wonderful professors like Hillary Brougher, Eric Mendelsohn, and Bogdan Apetri who was in my admission process. And, they definitely choose, spot and nurture talent and I think that beyond that, we also had a very, very successful year because all the people you have mentioned and many others – we were the same generation – are all preparing their feature films right now.

“Into the Blue” was nominated for a Student Academy Award. Congrats on that! Can you share your thoughts and first impressions?

A.A.K.: Thank you! It was a bit surreal, you know? Waking up and receiving emails from your classmates, friends and mentors that you have been nominated for a Student Academy Award! I’m very happy! What can I say? I’m not thinking about an award; I’m thinking about just being there, being in L.A. with these other international talented students. It’s going to be amazing!  And, it’s such a great wrap for my education at Columbia, because I spent five years studying there and this is such a nice finale.

 Going back to “Into the Blue”, you silently and suggestively observe your protagonist and you manage to show the resurfacing of her buried pain, but at the same time, you convey all the mixed feelings of all your characters. Can you talk about that?

A.A.K.: I absolutely agree with you. That’s a wonderful observation. I really appreciate it. So, thank you!

You’re welcome!

A.A.K.: I think it’s very important to build the worlds in many layers, obviously. But, in this type of movie in which there is the bare minimum of dialogue that most of the time is treated as just chatter, I used the technique of this silent body language communication and glares, looks, or even avoidance. The way that I built that was that I worked with young actors already in pre-production. So, for two months, they wrote diaries of their characters and the world they live in. They’re all city kids and on that island where we shot, there are no cars, no restaurants, no stores; there’s nothing. There are only houses and the beach. So, it was very important for them to take in that type of world with no cell phones, no electronics. So, once we got on set, they pretty much knew their characters very well. They merged with them. And then, the rest was just creating the situations and discomfort that they already understood from the backstory of their characters. It was about visually registering the moments that we had planned very well, and everything kind of fell into place.

It’s a pretty universal story and it’s not the first nor the last one about a friendship that dissolves because of a boy…

A.A.K.: I think that all the stories are somehow universal. We would be lying to ourselves if we believed that we invented something from scratch. I mean, everything was invented by the Greeks, right? We decided to go for a very simple human drama; a very small slice of it and depict it in a different way. So, I think it is a classical story that not only we have seen in movies, but one that everyone has experienced as well. So, we worked with the actors and the cinematographers to depict it differently. And, maybe, push it a little bit further and see what the situation can really deliver.

Can you talk about the situation process, how was it working with kids and how your acting experience helped with it?

A.A.K.: I’m also a kid! I cannot kid anyone about being a kid! So, we became best friends and we did everything together; we rode a boat together, we swam together, we discussed private lives together. I really became one of them. And, that was essential for having them open up, because this story not only talks about things that are close to them, but also about things that are either foreign to them or things they do not want to talk about, like for instance violence. And, family violence and peer violence are something that is either inherited or it’s nurtured in your environment. And, that was the difficult part in earning their trust. Then, on set, the energy was amazing. They did their work as full professionals, not as child actors.

What is your opinion of short films? Are they a step towards the feature? A showcase of talent? A genre in itself?

A.A.K.: I think Short Film is a form of its own. A short is not a shorter version of a feature, or a version that can be extended to a feature. I understand it’s a step towards a feature, because it’s showcasing your ability to work with a crew, your ability to visually express, your ability to direct actors, but it should not be treated as the shorter version of a feature film or a part of it. It’s a self-standing form that has its very different rules and it’s a rounded piece. It’s a full piece. It needs to go full circle just as a feature film does. And, it takes exactly the same prep.

You live and you work in the US, but you have shot your short in Croatia. Can you talk about the situation of short films in both countries, and compare and contrast?

A.A.K.: From a production point of view, of course, there is the Croatian Audiovisual Center (HAVC) that’s a major supporter of Croatian talent. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have an organization such as HAVC, because without them we would just be on our own. And, our films would not be looking the way they do. They would not be open to the professional market and they would not be promoted the way they are promoted. And, it’s the same with every European country. We really need to support, cherish and stand behind our film centers because there would be no European Cinema without them. So, that’s the main difference. In the U.S., you are really on your own, on Kickstarter, on Indiegogo, depending on your friends’ and family’s money or your Church, neighborhood or however you figure out to fund your film… Or, you’re just independently wealthy and very luck to do it, which is also great. But, it’s not the same scouting of talent. It’s not the same ability to produce the film even when you have money from an outside organization like a film center, because it’s not only about giving cash, it’s also about nurturing people, and putting things into the perspective of a country’s Cinema, connecting with other people and other talents. The point is that I’m very lucky to be from Croatia!

What are your next projects?

A.A.K.: Our next project is “Murina”. It’s a feature length film. It’s a Croatian film with a majority of Croatian actors, shot in Croatia. It speaks of violence again; it’s a theme that really intrigues me. And, it is also a coming of age story with Gracia Filipović, the same actress in the main role. We have already started preparing for it, both with Gracia and the core creative team. The film is in development in First Films First now. We are working on the script and hoping to start pre-production in the next seven months.

And, Christina is writing, right?

A.A.K.: Yes! It’s a story that originates from the both of us. She is writing the script, and we are developing it together. And, again, I cannot say much more than I already have about the incredible process this is for the both of us.

So, no more shorts for you?

A.A.K.: Well, you can never say “No!” It’s like saying you’re never going to fall in love again! I would absolutely do shorts, even after doing a feature. Why not? It’s not a stepping stone. It’s a form of its own. And, if there’s going to be a story that requires a short form, I’m going to be doing it!

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