Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović understands the power and resilience of young women. Her short film, Into the Blue, follows a 13-year-old girl who flees her abusive home and experiences newfound freedom on an island off the coast of Croatia. The short earned her a Student Academy Award nomination and caught the attention of Kusijanović’s future executive producer, Martin Scorsese. With her first feature, Murina, Kusijanović expands on the themes and ideas of her short film. Murina follows Julija (Gracija Filipović), a 17-year-old, navigating the rocky waters of growing up on a secluded yet idyllic island. Writer/Director Kusijanović builds a slow burn as blistering as the island’s heat, addressing complicated themes like violence, freedom, and generational attitudes toward the patriarchy in beguiling ways.
Murina won the Caméra d’Or for Best First Feature at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and is now nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards, including Best First Feature, Best Cinematography, and Best Breakthrough Performance for Gracija Filipović. As the film has steadily been made available to more audiences, women worldwide have shared with Kusijanović that they relate to the women in the film who struggle to break free from the constraints of the patriarchy in their environments. Kusijanović shared, “I get a lot of emails and messages on social media from women in different countries. It’s not only Croatia. It’s also Korea, India, Turkey, and Greece. It’s Southern Italy. It’s China. It’s many different countries. It has a different texture, but it is the same conflict. It’s packaged in a different folklore, mentality, custom, or religion, but it’s all the same thing.”
I was delighted to speak with Kusijanović about the power of resilience, the surprising connections to The Little Mermaid, and depicting a beautiful but dangerous place by the sea.
Sophia Ciminello: Thank you so much for joining me today, Antoneta, to talk about your film, Murina. I actually saw this film for the first time back in 2021 at Cannes.
Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović: Oh wow (laughs) ages ago!
SC: (Laughs) It really was! The film has had such a journey premiering at Cannes and now earning Independent Spirit Nominations. Congratulations!
AAK: Thank you. Yes, it was really an incredible journey. The film has been spoken about for such a long time, but it didn’t have a straight festival distribution. It was released and seen in waves, which has been such a gift, really. It’s crazy.
SC: I would love to hear how your short film, Into the Blue, evolved into Murina. What did you know you wanted to explore in your first feature?
AAK: So, when I first made Into the Blue, I really didn’t have Murina in sight. I met Gracija doing Into the Blue, and then I decided to write Murina for her. I really felt that there was something so intangible about this journey from childhood to becoming a full-blown woman that had to be captured. With Into the Blue, I wanted to explore violence as nurture or nature. It was about a conflict between the violence outside ourselves and the violence within ourselves. With Murina, I still wanted that violence to be part of the world, but I wanted to tap into the resilience you only have as a teenager; the resilience you have before things are beaten out of you with time, life, and experiences. I wanted to write Murina for my 16-year-old self and all other women and men watching who needed to remember that resilience and power within them. In my book, I wrote that as a reminder to myself, “resilience is all we have.”
SC: I love that too. Our fearlessness is so strong at that age.
AAK: There’s something about deciding to jump off a cliff, no matter the height, without applying all of the calculation, logic, and fear. It’s just about pure surrender. It’s dangerous. It could kill you, but it also can expand you. That’s something that you lose when you acquire knowledge and experience. When we were shooting Into the Blue, Gracija was thirteen years old, and she was jumping off of these huge cliffs like it was nothing. Then we came to the same cliff four years later when Gracija was about to turn seventeen. She jumped off of that cliff only once for that one shot. It was incredible because it was just proving that point. You don’t know why you feel that way, but it’s like you have more awareness your body takes up more space. You feel more grounded and present here and start thinking of things you could lose with this impulsiveness. That’s exactly what the movie was about, that moment when you can no longer jump.
SC: That’s a beautiful way to distill the film’s themes. You mentioned that you wrote the role specifically for Gracija. What is your collaborative process like with her when you’re shooting?
AAK: There is something great about working with really talented kids. Now, she’s a young woman, but when we first started working together, she was nine years old. She was also an athlete, so she trained every day. Her mindset was that whatever she decided to do, she would be devoted to that and that practice makes perfect. When it comes to the film, you can’t really practice. But you can expand the vision of the world beyond the screen, so once you step in front of the camera, the words have gravitas. They’re not only hanging words in the air in front of the camera. So she dove into this with me. She’s been very disciplined in working continuously on building this character.
We would wake up at 5:00 am to go fishing. We lived on an island together and worked on physical boundaries and relationships between parents and children. We did dance classes together in tango, which is all about listening to your partner through movement and anticipating the next step. We were working on confronting certain emotions that were not second nature to her and her personal experience. All of these things were built over a long time, and when she arrived to shoot Murina, I noticed a really delicate moment, especially for her as a young actor. There was the moment when the things from her life and the things from the story started to cross over and meld together. I remember before we started shooting, there was one moment when we went to dinner with all the cast, and we were driving back home, and she said to me, “I feel so happy. I understand Julija. I have acquired all these emotions and feel like the best is yet to come. I could die now.”
SC: Wow, that is incredible that she felt that way.
AAK: I was so moved, and I was like, no, no (laughs), there are so many more things to experience, but I appreciate that this character is so lived-in. It was a very emotional moment for me.
SC: I bet. That’s very overwhelming. I like how you tackle the idea of freedom or the lack thereof with Julija. She seems so free when she’s out in the water, but simultaneously, she is trapped on this island. I don’t know if anyone has made this comparison, but it reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood, The Little Mermaid.
AAK: That’s one of my favorite movies from childhood too. We can talk about that. Thank you. There are different types of entrapment, physical entrapment and mental entrapment. What I liked about The Little Mermaid growing up is that people don’t want you to recognize what you have so that they can take it from you.
I think that the story you remember as a child somehow defines you. For me, that was The Little Mermaid. Later in life, you connect the dots and realize what about that story impacted you. For me, The Little Mermaid was definitely not about her wanting to change her tail for legs so she could be with a man, but about not recognizing her full potential power and possibly losing it forever. Julija is only physically entrapped because her resilience reminds her that this isn’t right. She’s ready to break free, even if it means completely jumping off the high cliff and swimming into the unknown. The emotional entrapment is much more dangerous. Like Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Julija’s mother is a trapped soul. Nobody enters the clarity of the creative process knowing that this is what moved them as a child and what they want to do. They always enter from one point, and then things unravel, and you learn and grow with your team and individually.
Just this morning, I was talking to my collaborator about my great-grandmother, who lived on an island. She was ninety-five, and she was dying. I was eighteen years old then, and she told me, “I could’ve done everything, and I decided to stay here out of certain family honor. And I regret it.” I forgot that my great-grandmother told me that, but this morning as I was writing my new story, I remembered that. I realized, of course, I have this mother in the story who was so strongly connected to something I had heard from my family. So, it’s all about these different kinds of prisons imposed by the self, your mentality, and fear. It’s all about how we limit our freedom.
SC: Thank you so much for sharing that. I love how all of those stories are interconnected. In the film, you depict women and their relationships with fear, freedom, and the patriarchal structures of their community in such specific ways. It’s interesting to see how Julija and Nela respond to and understand each other concerning Ante too.
AAK: Ante is a character in the movie, but he also represents the patriarchy as I know it. That patriarchy can’t survive without women supporting it. That’s the conflict between Julija and Nela, the support of that patriarchy. There’s a little bit of that generational separation where Nela is a part of the lost generation. She’s part of the generation between being awake and completely asleep. So, Nela’s mother must have supported the patriarchy blindly and taught Nela those rules. She must have understood that this is how society works, and she could ask why, but she followed them. And then she raised Julija, who says, “this is wrong.” That lost generation is the worst place to be; awake but inactive. She breaks my heart.
SC: Absolutely. Nela was the tragic character in the film for me.
AAK: Me too. Actually, I made the film for all of the Nelas to wake up as Julijas.
SC: I love that. I’m also curious about the character of Javier. When he arrives and mentions Harvard as an option for Julija, you feel this sense of hope that she can leave, but he’s also a catalyst for conflict in the family.
AAK: I think that we need people like Javier, even if they’re flaky or not truthful and even if they won’t deliver. He’s what propels Julija’s resilience. In a dramatic movie, a character like Javier is essential to speed up and catalyze the story forward. If he were the guy he promised to be, Julija would not have been as successful of a woman in finding her true power as she did. For me, it was essential to have somebody who sparks the idea. He’s somebody who makes you ask, “why not me?” and lets you sink into the impossible tunnel of darkness. But she survives, and it’s sometimes facing that one needs to confront their fears. That was at least Julija’s thought.
SC: Absolutely. I loved the cinematography, especially the underwater shots. I’m sure it was tricky to capture everything around the water too. Can you talk about what it was like to shoot with your director of photography, Hélène Louvart?
AAK: Oh, it was so great (laughs).
SC: (Laughs) That’s so good to hear.
AAK: I really love to be on set, and being on set with Hélène is sublime. She had the same interest in the story and wanted the audience to follow people emotionally. That’s why working with her and watching her films is so simple and beautiful. We were also very aware that we were shooting in a gorgeous place that was also a big trap. But we needed to show that this was a trap. We couldn’t just have this beautiful holiday movie. It’s not that. This was a claustrophobic, stark, uninhabitable environment where one could only go for a limited amount of time and leave. That is what we were shooting. We had a couple of very strict rules for how to cheat that. One of them was not to have any trees. We couldn’t have anything lush, green, or that gives shade. We had to shoot solely in places that had flat rocks with no trees. There was nowhere to hide. These people are meant to burn on the rock. The only place to hide is underwater, where you can’t breathe. So even though we had this wide shot of the vastness of nature and beautiful horizons, it felt like you were on the moon. It had to feel really claustrophobic because there was nowhere to go. If you stay long enough, you’ll dry out and die. So that allowed us to be free in sometimes pretending this is beautiful.
SC: The beauty of their environment really does play a trick on you.
AAK: But you know, your body and brain know. When you’re watching a film, you can perceive something as beautiful, but your subconscious knows that you could die there if you’re there for more than 12 hours.
SC: Oh, you can definitely feel that when you’re watching the film. And you mentioned that you’re writing right now. What’s something you learned from your experience shooting Murina that you will take with you into the next film?
AAK: The character needs to drag their dilemma and need through every moment in their film. It’s like their weight around their leg. You can never forget that. It’s very simple and straightforward, but that helps you know that when there is a snowstorm, a thunderstorm, a cut in a budget, or whatever crazy thing happens on set, you know how to connect your movie as a whole. That’s the only thing that matters. Everything in the background is secondary.
SC: That’s the perfect way to wrap up today. Thank you so much again for joining me, Antoneta. This was a great conversation.
AAK: Yes, great questions! Thank you.
Murina is currently available to stream on Showtime.