Brenda Brkusic a Feature Story in Doings
Senior project launches directing career for Lyons Township graduate
Brkusic and the actors and crew from "Freedom From Despair" set up shop on the streets of Croatia. The 24-year old Brkusic based the film on her father, Krunoâ€™s, escape from war-torn Yugoslavia. The documentary includes archive footage and interviews with survivors of the upheaval. (Photos courtesy of Brenda Brkusic)
By Sandy Illian Bosch
When Americans gathered in Washington, D.C. in 1991 to call the government's attention to the war in Croatia, Brenda Brkusic of Indian Head Park was standing among them.
"I was only 10 years old," she said. At that age, she didn't fully understand the events that brought her there or their widespread effects. She soon learned others didn't understand either, and she took it upon herself to tell the story.
"Freedom From Despair" is a full-length documentary written, produced and directed by 24-year-old Brkusic. Through interviews and re-enactments, she tells the story of how her father, Indian Head Park resident Kruno Brkusic, escaped totalitarian Yugoslavia in 1957.
As her father's homeland became scarred by war during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, he fought to tell the story of the land he fled and to convince then President George H. Bush to recognize Croatia and to help stop the injustices and atrocities taking place there.
"It was one of the hardest parts of their lives," Brkusic said. "I just felt it was a story that had to be told."
The story is one that more and more people are getting a chance to hear. Brkusic's film has won an impressive handful of awards, including the CINE Golden Eagle Award, whose recipients also include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Ken Burns. Brkusic's film has been praised by Amnesty International, the U.S. House of Representatives and by film critics who have called it "compelling," exceptionally well-crafted" and "a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the other side of communism in the Cold War."
Nothing less than perfect
As her television production teacher at Lyons Township High School, Bob Foskett gave Brkusic her first taste of movie-making. Even then, Foskett remembers the teenager's desire to do things right. It was in keeping with her personality, that when faced with the task of producing a film as her senior project at Chapman University in Southern California, Brkusic turned out a full-length film while others produced 15-minute videos.
She spent two years making the film. She took classes and worked during the day, and crafted the film at night. The project took her to Chicago and to Croatia, and left her in significant financial debt. Not one to settle for less than she desired, Brkusic called on some big Hollywood names for help, and she got it. Michael York, John Savage and Beata Pozniak performed English voice overs for interviews that were in Croatian. The actors told her they sensed her drive, and they wanted to be part of it.
Indian Head Park native Brenda Brkusic spent two years, and trips to Croatia, to produce the award-winning documentary, â€śFreedom From Despair.â€?
"I never thought all this would happen," Brkusic said.
But looking back, she always wanted to do something in entertainment. A dancer since age 6, many assumed her career would put her on the stage rather than behind a camera. Her path took a turn, but her background as a dancer helped her navigate the way with ease and finesse.
There's a rhythm to directing and editing, she said, that seems to come naturally.
Just the beginning
It might not happen right away, but Brkusic sees more documentaries in her future.
"It's my way of helping people," she said.
Until next spring, she'll work on distribution of the film. Three companies currently are negotiating for the right to broadcast "Freedom From Despair" on cable television, and more than 3,000 copies have been sold via Brkusic's Web site, www.freedomfromdespair.com. She's been hired by the International Documentary Association to present her film to high school and college students and to speak to them about leadership and filmmaking. Promotion of the film will take her to Australia this fall.
After that, Brkusic is lined up to serve as assistant to the director on Academy Award winner David Ward's next project. He's made films such as "Sleepless in Seattle," "Major League" and "The Sting."
"When I was at Chapman I won a scholarship that allowed me to work with David Ward while I was editing "Freedom From Despair." He as very helpful to me and he will always be my mentor because he believes in me," Brkusic said.
He's not the first to expect big things from Brkusic. In the message he wrote in her high school yearbook, Foskett predicted he would be reading a lot about his student in the future. It looks like he was right.