Of all the categories at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, the one that voters seem to get right year after year is the one devoted to promising young talent. In past years, the Breakthrough Performer prize has gone to such indelible actors as Amy Adams (“Junebug”), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”), Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”), Elsie Fisher (“Eighth Grade”), Taylor Russell (“Waves”) and Emilia Jones (“CODA”). Needless to say, 2022 was no exception. Winner of the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, Croatian director Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s stunning debut feature, “Murina,” ultimately sinks or swims on the strength of its leading lady, Gracija Filipović, and her performance is a spellbinding triumph. 

She plays Julija, a teenager who shares the name of the character Filipović played in Kusijanović’s equally entrancing 2017 short, “Into the Blue.” Confined in a home that is fraught with abuse, much of it administered by her despicably domineering father, Ante (Leon Lučev of “The Load”), Julija quietly plans to escape the fate willingly endured by her long-suffering mother, Nela (Danica Ćurčić, currently featured on Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom”). When Ante’s rich friend, Javier (“Whale Rider” star Cliff Curtis), arrives for a weekend vacation on the Adriatic Sea, Julija starts to view him as her potential ticket to a new life, perhaps one set in America. What makes Filipović’s work here so mesmerizing is how she’s able to burrow us deep within her character’s psyche, even in scenes where she never utters a word. In a year filled to the brim with amazing performances, Filipović’s is one of the very best. 

Just days after being named the Gotham Awards’ 2022 recipient of its Breakthrough Performer prize, Filipović spoke with Cinema Femme via Zoom about her love of the water, the relevance of this film’s story and what she hopes to achieve through her artistry.

Gracija Filipović

Were there certain performers you admired while growing up?

I was maybe eight years old when I got my first role in the theatre, and that is where I grew up. It was such an amazing world in terms of just being onstage. What interested me was not only acting but costumes, lighting, sound, directing—really everything. My first acting heroes were the people I saw in the theatre. As I watched them, I thought, ‘Okay, I want to do that.’ Croatia has a lot of talented actresses and actors like Zrinka Cvitešić, Tihana Lazović, Leon Lučev and many others, but it is a very small industry in terms of how many movies we can shoot in a year.

What is it specifically about the water that appeals to you?

It has always been a part of my life. Both me and Antoneta grew up in a city where you’re so close to the sea. When I was four years old, my parents would just throw me in the water and were like, “Now you know how to swim.” Then I started swimming professionally for twelve or thirteen years. The sea kind of has its own personality, which is very unpredictable. For me, it’s the safest place on earth. Whether I’m sad or I’m happy, or I feel inspired or uninspired, I go to the sea. I just dive and swim and feel the sea. At the same time, the sea can also be the most unsafe and aggressive thing in the world, and I like that it is unpredictable. It remains a very safe place for me whenever I’m in it or simply watching it from my house.

Tell me about your first collaboration with Antoneta, which apparently was a student film that she directed.

It’s very funny because for years, I’ve been telling people that I met Antoneta when she shot a music video for a Croatian group in 2015. But after “Murina,” I realized that we actually met a lot earlier than that on her student movie. I was nine and I had only one scene where my character was passing by in a car. It was only two or three hours of shooting, and I don’t remember anything about that set, but I do remember Antoneta telling me at the end of it, “We are going to work together sometime.” I had almost shaven hair at the time, and she also had very short hair, so I didn’t even realize that was her. After we made “Murina,” she asked, “You know that was me?”, and I went, “Oh my god!” I couldn’t believe it. So she kind of predicted our own destiny. [laughs]

In what ways is this film’s portrayal of patriarchal oppression reflective of the plight of women in Croatia and beyond?

It’s interesting because although Antoneta and I are fifteen years apart in age, we grew up in the same city, went to the same school, and were in the same theatre. Some things unfortunately haven’t changed. I think it’s better now, but these issues are still very present. The sort of family portrayed in “Murina” remains very normalized not only in Croatia but I believe everywhere else in the world. You have these strong father figures who are raising his daughters to listen to their husbands, while raising their boys to man up and not to cry. I think that’s very toxic and problematic. For me, this movie was not just about pointing fingers, it was also a way for us to tell young people, “You too have a voice. It doesn’t have to be like this. This is a generational trauma, but you can stop it.” It was very important for me to say to young people that we have to fight this oppression, while not normalizing this kind of behavior. I think we all know that there are countless families like this one in our world today.

What was it like acting opposite such gifted veteran performers, including the great New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, whom I interviewed years ago?

It was my first time working with someone from a big Hollywood scene, although the other actors—Danica Ćurčić and Leon Lučev—are very big as well. At the beginning, I was a little bit scared because I knew I would be working with all these big names and I didn’t really know what to expect. But then, onset, all my fears disappeared. They were really supportive. What I appreciated was that even when camera wasn’t on them, and it was on me, they did their best so that I could give my best. I really appreciated that because not every actor does that. Also, everyone—especially Antoneta—created this safe place for me where I wasn’t afraid to fail. I knew I could try something during a take, and if it wasn’t good, that would be fine and we would just take a different approach. That was really important for me.

We had a lot of rehearsals, which was also a factor that got us to be in a very safe place because it prepared us for filming. The actors were open to have many rehearsals, which was very important. I remember we were living together for two weeks—me, Antoneta and all the other actors—and we were able to explore the family dynamics of our characters. Every day, I wrote a diary from Julija’s point of view. That really helped me get into her mind by understanding what she is thinking about everyday things. When you watch the movie, you see that my character is very silent and doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. That diary really helped me to be present in those moments by allowing me to know what she is thinking. In terms of physical preparation, I had to learn how to use a spear and a harpoon, and really get into that island life. Yet all these things were really fun for me because I hadn’t experienced them before. Of course, I love being in the sea as well, so it wasn’t really a problem for me. 

How do you see “Murina” as a thematic continuation of “Into the Blue”?

I think there are a lot of connections between, I would say, younger Julija and older Julija. Both films explore the same sort of island life from the perspective of a really strong, young female voice. When we did “Into the Blue,” Antoneta was like my mother. By the time we made “Murina,” she was more like my friend. It was interesting how our relationship grew, but also how my perspective of Julija grew, since Antoneta gave me different directions when filming “Murina” than she did when we made “Into the Blue.” I am very happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to explore this same kind of theme over a longer period of time, because I really got to experience all of it. 

How does Antoneta create a safe space for actors when filming scenes of intimacy?

She was definitely my biggest supporter onset. As I said, she gave me that space to explore and not be afraid to fail. I also knew that if I wasn’t comfortable with something, I could just talk to her and she would be okay with it, so I think our relationship really effected our work onset. In the first stages of making this movie when she was still writing her script, we were always talking and she would ask me, “What do you think about this and that?” I felt that was a crucial part of our collaboration. 

Is there a lot of discussion between you and Antoneta about the themes of these films, and do these conversations have an impact on the work itself?

We are fortunate that it’s not our story. In the beginning, I wasn’t really connected with this role because I fortunately didn’t grow up in an abusive family and I never met someone who had. But we both knew that it was really present in our community. What’s interesting is that by the end of the movie, and especially now that it’s been two or three years since we shot the film, I feel like I am more similar to Julija than I previously thought I was, and I think Antoneta knew that before I did. In the beginning, the only thing that I felt Julija and I shared was a deep connection with the sea and with nature. I didn’t really relate to anything else on a personal level, but now, I’ve realized for myself that I, as a female in this community, have a voice and that I can really help. So this movie was also really important in terms of altering my own point of view of myself.

What has been the most special thing about your trip to NYC, and has this recognition at the Gotham Awards made you all the more motivated to continue acting?

I think that every little girl and boy in Croatia has that dream of one day going to the United States and getting to see New York and Los Angeles. For me, this award means so much on so many levels. First of all, I’m really thankful for “Murina” being recognized in the United States, not just because of my role in it, but because the movie has some really important things to say, so I’m happy about that. I also think this is a huge deal to have Croatian cinema being recognized outside of Croatia and now outside of Europe. 

What I really liked was that Antoneta was also nominated for Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, so while I am very happy about my award, it’s even more meaningful that I got to be nominated with her. I’ve been loving New York during my time here. For me, New York is just like in the movies. It has this sparkling energy that just pulls you in and I feel really inspired here. I honestly love just walking down the streets of New York and seeing all these different cultures. I’ve been staying in Manhattan, and when I went yesterday to Little Italy, I felt so inspired there.

In what ways would you like to fuse your love of acting and marine biology in upcoming projects? You’ve recently spoken in interviews about making a documentary.

I do have a great love for marine biology, especially whales and sharks, so I would love to do a documentary on them. I just want to capture marine animals on film because I love them so much and I want all other people to see what I’m seeing in them. There are many harmful activities people are engaging in that are destroying the planet, and I want to break the stereotype that all of these creatures are dangerous. I would love for people to see them as these amazing beings and friends of the earth. My goal is to capture them on film, show the world how beautiful they are, and then leave them alone while encouraging others to do the same. 

What makes Antoneta such an ideal collaborator for you?

She is, first of all, such a great director because she somehow always knows what you need. In every instance, she gave me the right direction, the right support, or the right space. I remember this one time when I did a scene that was really emotional. While I was doing the scene, I knew that it was good, and when we finished, I saw that everyone had tears in their eyes. It was a really good take. Then Antoneta pulled me aside and said, “That was amazing. Do you want to do it one more time? Do you think you can do it better?” I said, “Yes, let’s do it one more time,” and it was a hundred times better.

I think that’s the reason why we are both here at the Gotham Awards and have been at Cannes and all these other events. She really believed in me and in herself and in her movie, and I think that brought us here. Also, outside of the movie, she is an amazing friend, an amazing person, an amazing mother and she has a really contagious energy. You cannot be around her without being inspired because she is the person who will tell you, “Why is it impossible? Let’s see how we can do this,” and I really appreciated that. She is one of a kind, and I would obviously love to work with her again in the future.

I love the video on Instagram of you and Antoneta reacting to hearing your name being declared as the winner of Breakthrough Performer at the Gotham Awards.

It was one of the most emotional experiences in my life, and I’m so glad that she was there because she really is the person who brought me up and is my biggest supporter outside of, of course, my family. I was 16 when we made the movie, and it was really important for me to be around all these strong females—not just Antoneta and Danica, but our cinematographer Hélène Louvart, costume designer Amela Bakšić and makeup designer Snježana Gorup. From what I had previously seen in the film industry and the media in general, there had always been an effort to make women compete against each other. This was my first time seeing a strong group of females just working together to make a strong movie and I think that was really crucial for my coming of age. 

“Murina” is now available to stream on Showtime and is currently available on all VOD platforms including Apple TV, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play and Kino Now.

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