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“We Had to Combine Three Different Islands”: Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic on Cannes Caméra d’Or-Winner Murina

Murina

The winner of the Caméra d’Or for the best debut feature at Cannes this year was the maritime Murina, a coming-of-age drama of slow-motion escape from Croatian writer-director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic. Premiering in Directors’ Fortnight, the sun-baked film tracks teenaged Julija (Gracija Filipivoc) as she slowly but surely pushes for autonomy from her grumpy father, Ante (Leon Lucev), who runs their family like an impatient captain. A visit from a longtime friend, bekhaki’d and comfortable businessman Javier (Cliff Curtis), sets thoughts spinning for Julija and her youthful mother, Nela (Danica Curcic), as Ante frantically schemes to sell land. 

Kusijanovic brilliantly orchestrates the build-up of tensions and the hide-and-seek of intentions and regrets among the four, blocking out subtly charged encounters, gazes, smiles, strides on and around the island the family calls home. DP Hélène Louvart, a frequent lyricist of youthful innocence for Eliza Hittmann and Alice Rohrwacher, lets us feel the sunlight with an edge, and there’s an interplay of resilience and fragility in the film’s images. “Murina” is the Croatian word for the apparently quite adaptable moray eel.

Partly shooting on the Croatian island where Kusijanovic used to visit her grandmother, Kusijanovic garnered support from Cannes’ Cinéfondation, among others, and producers including Martin Scorsese Sikelia and RT Features. I spoke to the filmmaker before she won the Cannes award and only learned in our conversation that she was days away from giving birth. 

Filmmaker: What was the genesis of the movie’s idea?

Kusijanovic: I wanted to stay more in the world and the character that I discovered in Into the Blue, my short film, where I really liked playing with the triangles among people and the stark nature, [set] against the emotions and hormones and aggression and violence of those characters within these triangles. I started from those dynamics and an image of nature that I had from my childhood, then the story built slowly. I worked with my collaborator, Frank Graziano. I also spent a lot of time in Croatia in the last two years to come back to and closer to that mentality, and to rediscover and understand why it was important to tell the story of these two generations of women that are trapped in the chauvinism and violence that we very much call the “mentality” in Croatia.

Filmmaker: Did you observe this kind of dynamic growing up in Dubrovnik?

Kusijanovic: Yeah, it’s not scandalous behavior in Croatia. You can notice it in families and neighbors, in the streets. People call it part of the culture—when it’s really not, actually. 

Filmmaker: Is there a younger generation who doesn’t want to automatically accept it as part of the culture?

Kusijanovic: It’s interesting, I’m not sure that that’s true, actually. I think a lot of the younger generation is falling back into that status quo. There are still rare individuals, women and men, who are standing out from this tribal behavior. I’m always interested in the dynamics of the tribe. What does means to obey it or to confront it? What are those individual desires versus the community desires that we set up and that defend themselves in a certain way? When you are standing out, how are you punished?

Filmmaker: Julia is so resilient and has to put up with her father talking to her more like an employee more than a daughter.

Kusijanovic: She’s more like a deckhand than a daughter. He’s like a captain and everybody else are just helpers and employees. Yes, I wanted to critique this character, the father, who had so much potential and just took the path of least resistance. So his strength is inflicted upon the “weaker” sex—in his opinion—but in front of the man he fails. 

Filmmaker: You put together such a great cast. How did you find Gracija Filipivoc, who plays Julija?

Kusijanovic: She was nine when I met her the first time. I have her in like one shot in a short film I did for school. Then, at the age of 13, I did Into the Blue with her. I did a big casting [call] in the city for over a hundred kids. She was very sensitive, and her face tells a lot—it was effortless somehow. She just had to be put in the right emotion to express that, very delicately. So, I really liked working with her. We prepared for another four years, on and off of course, then she starred in Murina. 

Because I knew this was a very big jump from short to feature film, where she has a role with a big arc and a lot of things she had to show, I tried to build the cast around her. It was important that she was surrounded with people who were going to support her acting but also that naturally fit. Like in every film, but especially here, so that not much had to be explained—that they were instantly a family, which didn’t have to be fabricated. So, we did a lot of rehearsals and work to choose the actors that were right for her, then they all lived together for a month on an island.

Filmmaker: You had them living like a family for a month on an island?

Kusijanovic: Yes! I would wake up the father and say, “It’s 3 a.m. and in one hour, you’re going to wake up your family and take them fishing before the sunrise.” Then he would wake up in character, scream at them and get them out on the boat. And everything! It was fun. [chuckles] It was not funny in that moment, but afterward, when they were swimming, it was fun.

Filmmaker: I did not know that but it makes sense because they are so convincing as a family. You feel like they’ve been doing this their whole lives, including their emotional reactions, like the mother always trying to navigate between father and daughter.

Kusijanovic: Yeah, we would sometimes start preparing dinner together, then go through an entire dinner in character. I would just be eating with them, but not interfering as much as I could, unless I felt that it was going out of the right path for the character. I would just whisper in their ears to adjust sometimes. But they would be in the role for like six hours at a time.

Filmmaker: You shot Murina on location. How did you want the movie to look? The sea looks beautiful, but it’s also clear how to this family, it’s very familiar and natural.

Kusijanovic: Right, it was very important for me not to make a postcard. In nature, every location was there not because it was beautiful but because it expressed some underlying emotion for that scene or the film or the character. For example, it was very important for me to find all the exterior locations without any vegetation. So if you notice, there are no trees.

Filmmaker: It’s quite barren!

Kusijanovic: And that’s not in one location. We had to combine three different islands that are miles away from each other to get that feeling. Because I felt that these people are like raw flesh burning under the sun. They are really between a rock and a hard place. I wanted them to be exposed, to be really bare to their emotions. That made them react stronger at moments because there’s nowhere to hide. That was very important for exteriors, and the house is very Spartan. Also the trees that are there are mostly olive, very grey, no deep shadows. It’s beautiful but not comfortable. 

The underwater was the only hiding place. It’s wet and darker and almost like a nest for Julija. But then that underwater has different layers to it. With Ante, it was at times threatening, too hidden, too much inside the rocks and the holes and places where they had their dynamics—and it felt like a place of spilling blood. Whereas with Javier, Julija descends to a place that feels like a new place, a universe, a sea she has never seen before, something like a completely different state. Then when she is alone at the end of the movie, it also feels different. That sea is much more murky, it’s not blue—it feels like a uterus, almost like a birthing of oneself. So all of these visual places were important in telling the story. 

Filmmaker; Yes, the climax of the story is so powerful, when she is trapped in an underwater hole and has to get out. What were the challenges of that scene? Not only technical, but also emotional, because it’s really intense.

Kusijanovic: Yeah, that was a very intense scene. We actually shot in an underwater cave that had big rocky walls around it but thankfully it was not covered on top like the caves are. So the entire crew including me could be on the top and look down at the actors and cinematographers almost as if they were in a pool. That was one of the benefits, but it was very difficult to light underwater at night, and for safety of course. Being in that 40-meter-deep, dark hole, the claustrophobia felt real. And being in the water for a long time is not easy, especially at night. But what was most challenging is reaching an emotional climax that doesn’t make it feel acted, forced. It was just like before orgasm, you need to scream but you can’t finish it. It has to feel like it still has a place to build. We had to see the fear, the desperation, but it couldn’t be shown all the way into a cliché.

Filmmaker: It’s very powerful and dramatically, and particularly tragic. Julija is strong and bold, so she is trying to get out of this hole and out of her situation, but she is in danger of getting stuck.

Kusijanovic: Yeah, it was very important for me to see this character confront the possibility of dying and save herself alone. Because only in that way could she come out of this film without anchors in other people, and earn her freedom and life. Because once faced with death, how much can you fear humans, right?

Filmmaker: You were speaking of triangles before and an interesting character is the friend of the father, Javier. He believes in Julia and seems to be boosting her ego. 

Kusijanovic: Yes, he’s a person who’s escapist as well. He has power but his life is falling apart and is shallow in many ways. And he can come here and play family with another man’s family and infatuate this young girl who sees in him so many roles. Julija sees the world in him and sees in him the father she thinks she never had. She sees the opportunities, and she understands maybe something that is love that she realizes she doesn’t have and wants to pursue in her own life. She’s coming of age, and she is understanding that she might be late and childish in certain ways, being so isolated. 

So, Javier is a catalyst for so many things. Not only for Julija—he is really a catalyst for the father, who lost so many opportunities and had these wrong expectations. And for the mother, who realized that maybe he was a coward in certain choices, not to go and pursue this relationship and to lead her on. So, he is really a catalyst for all of them and comes with a lot of baggage himself, a lot of faults and weaknesses.

Filmmaker: It’s all part of the chemical reaction.

Kusijanovic: Yes, I always like to say that for me, Julija’s a child, but she’s really an adult among teenagers. These adults are really going through some sort of a puberty and each one of them is coming of age in a different way.

Filmmaker: I really like that way of thinking about them, and I like it’s not possible to pigeonhole Julija in some idea of a tomboy. Was that something you wanted to avoid?

Kusijanovic: She’s definitely sensual. She wants to provoke because that is the nature of the young woman at that age. She’s exploring, she’s testing her limits, tapping around, feeling around. Yet she’s also constrained by a father into certain roles where she is a little bit androgynous, a little bit of a son that he doesn’t have. That is also one of her constraints: her father’s expectations, the roles that she has to play every day, her physical responsibilities in that environment, and the isolation and everything don’t allow her to fully express herself. Som it’s really essential for her to express herself to strangers, to the kids who are anchored in the bay [a party boat of tourists], through Javier. She says, I’ve never been in love, but how could she be there? How could she know what powers she has? She only really is left to be this extension of her father figure.

Filmmaker: I’m curious which movies and directors are important to you. Who do you feel a connection with?

Kusijanovic: I’m going to be very classical here. I still to this day love Jane Campion and her film The Piano. I really think it’s fascinating, the relationship she built between a child and a mother, because it’s a relationship between two women. There’s jealousy and rivalry there, even though the child is 7 or 8. It’s fascinating to build such a very nuanced thing that comes across so clearly. And that woman, as a character, she’s portrayed in such a complex way. She’s given all these tools of sexuality and submission and arts, and a relationship with literally a tribe mentality and chauvinism. And there’s also her inner power, her desire, her sexuality. It’s really such a complex film, and it ages so well, and when I think of the human interactions in a movie, I still always go back to that film fascinated, also because it really has no dialogue [at times].

Filmmaker: What are you planning to shoot next or writing next?

Kusijanovic: I’m always open to be surprised by better plans than the things I can plan myself. But I am working on one script that is set in New York. It’s a woman who’s in the shadow of this metropolis, living in an immigrant Balkan community, in a construction business. Once her husband is unfaithful to her, she tries to gain back her sexuality and take the same rights for herself. Then she is threatened to be expelled from the tribe and her life completely taken away. That’s the world I am interested in right now. 

Nicolas Rapold is a critic and editor. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw, featuring conversations with critics and filmmakers.

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