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Her story: how female directors have redefined gender in Croatian cinema

Her story: how female directors have redefined gender in Croatian cinema
Mia Petričević as Marijana in Quit Staring at My Plate (dir. Hana Jušić, 2017). Image: Kinorama

For years, Croatian cinema told stories of war, testosterone-fuelled adventures and relationships seen from a male perspective, with women being marginalised, one-dimensional characters. Now a new generation of women directors is bringing more complex female characters to the screen

11 December 2017

When 24-year-old Marijana gets into a car with three unknown guys, we fear that we are about to witness a story of sexual assault. The sex scene that unfolds in front of our eyes comes as a surprise, as it is Marijana who takes the lead. The young girl is enjoying the moment, in charge rather than being taken advantage of.

The scene is from Quit Staring at My Plate, the first feature film by young Croatian director Hana Jušić. Although Jušić didn’t intend her movie to be subversive, in Croatia in 2017, where neo-conservatism has gained momentum, showing a woman (re)claiming ownership of her body is a notable act. In the context of Croatian cinematic tradition, it also represents a welcome novelty in its depiction of female characters.

After the fall of Yugoslavia in early 90s, Croatian cinema experienced a major hit. Since during the war and the years following the conflict the Croatian film industry survived only thanks to state support, most films from that period dealt with war-related topics, from a patriotic perspective.

That started to change in the early 2000s, as filmmakers began to tackle a wider range of topics with more freedom. Yet it is only in the past couple of years that pioneering filmmakers — a great number of them female — have sparked Croatia’s cinematic renaissance. The likes of Ognjen Sviličić, Nevio Marasović and Dalibor Matanić, (whose The High Sun was the first Croatian feature fiction film selected for the Cannes official programme in 2015) have marked the last decade of Croatian cinematography. These directors are of different ages, work on different topics and have different cinematographic approaches, but together they have shifted the focus of contemporary film to topics such as family, adolescence and sexuality, while simultaneously developing complex female characters and questioning the patriarchal structures of society.

Croatian sociologist, writer and feminist Jasenka Kodrnja once declared that women in Croatian cinema were “either victims or they cook pasta — but they are always silent”. The pasta line is a reference to one of the most iconic movies of early Croatian cinema, How the War Started on My Island (dir. Vinko Brešan, 1996). Set in 1991, it tells the story of a Yugoslav army officer, Aleksa, refusing to hand in his weapons to the police of newly-proclaimed independent Croatia. In a desperate attempt to make Aleksa give in, his wife Lucija promises to “cook him some pasta asciutta.” This line is what her character has been remembered for ever since.

Not all recent films have moved on from these damaging stereotypes, proving that Jušić and co are still up against it. In Lukas Nola’s Shut Up (2013) women are victims par excellence. In this family drama, we learn through the heroine Beba’s flashbacks that three generations of women in her family have endured sexual, verbal and physical violence. If not victims, female protagonists often cater to male fantasies, as in Branko Schmidt’s Queen of the Night (2001), with its romanticised archetype of the beautiful prostitute with a heart of gold. Anđelo Jurkas’s Fuck Off I Love You (2017) tells the story of an author (played by Jurkas himself) given 2,000 euros to write a story about his ex-lovers. These include a married woman, a drug addict who killed herself, an actor among many others — all of them not much more than extras in the story of the author’s ego.

“When some male directors depict women, they reduce them to a function they need in the plot,” Jušić tells me. “These women exist only in their relation to the men.” Her Marijana, however, doesn’t fit any of these moulds. A young hospital lab technician, she lives an uneventful life in the Croatian coastal town of Sibenik, until one day her overbearing father falls ill and Marijana assumes his role as the head of the family, taking care of her exuberant mother and disabled brother.

Jušić’s depiction of Croatian small town atmosphere is refreshing by itself, taking us far away from the usual postcard-worthy scenery of the Croatian coast, with its narrow cobbled streets, ancient white-stone churches, palm tree promenades and long beaches. Yet it is the density of family relationships, the open antagonisms and unspoken unease and, most of all, the complexity of Marijana’s character that made this family drama Croatia’s 2018 Oscar entry.

In Croatia in 2017, showing a woman (re)claiming ownership of her body is a notable act

The film is a continuation of Jušić’s work in her previous short movies, where the challenges of adolescent emancipation abounded. In her short Terarrium, she explored the complicated relationship between two teenage cousins. In No Wolf Has a House (an homage to the aesthetics of Ulrich Seidl and Giorgios Lanthimos) the female protagonist feels suffocated in her marriage while running a small town butchers. In Smart Girls, co-directed with another rising star of Croatian filmmaking, Sonja Tarokić, two authors openly speak about female sexuality and the experience of losing their virginity. These movies have earned Jušić a reputation as the forerunner of the “new wave of Croatian female cinema”.

The “wave” is not a term Jušić is comfortable with, though. “The only thing we have in common is pussy,” she declared a couple years ago in an interview. “I think one can talk about a wave when there are clear aesthetic tendencies, like in new Serbian cinema,” she tells me. “But when I think of my female colleagues in Croatia, I think of them as a heterogeneous bunch.”

Despite Jušić’s protestations, it is undisputable that the past decade has seen an important change in the gender structure of Croatian filmmaking. Most female directors who have garnered critical acclaim are in their 30s, and all of them operate in a predominantly male field, in a deeply patriarchal country. “One cannot deny that Croatian cinema has become more female than ever before,” explains Nikica Gilić, professor of film studies at the Department of Comparative Literature in Zagreb. “More women enrol into film academies, not only as actors or video editors — which are traditionally considered “female” fields of work — but also as directors.”

Croatian director Vlatka Vorkapić recalls an anecdote from her days at film school. A professor “concerned about her future” asked her what she would be doing upon graduation, only to come up with the answer himself, a couple of minutes later: “You can always get married!” “I doubt he would have said the same thing to a man. Luckily, the situation has changed, and today nobody thinks it is strange for a woman to earn her living as a director,” Vorkapić tells me in an email.

While they are nods to feminism in their work, these directors are more concerned with intimate dramas and self-contained family universes

Vorkapić has been one of the most outspoken directors to complain about the “celluloid ceiling” in Croatian film. She has pointed out that it is harder for women to get their first feature movie made; that financing is distributed unequally, and that men seem to get their second feature movie green lit much more easier. She herself waited for a decade to get the financing for her first feature movie, Sonja and the Bull (2012), a romantic comedy about an female animal rights activist who travels to a rural area of Croatia to protest bull fights — and ends up falling in love with a bull breeder. “Just as in the past the fact that I was young defined me, it is certain that my whole life is defined by the fact I am a woman,” she writes.

Discussions about women in the arts are never, and should never be easy, according to Gilić. “As in literature or any other form of art, talking about ‘female cinema’ is a double-edged sword. It is very dangerous to separate ‘male’ and ‘female’ cinema sharply”. Whether or not there is a new female wave remains contested. The films in question are aesthetically heterogeneous enough that we cannot talk about a stylistic uniformity. And while they are nods to feminism in their work, these directors are more concerned with intimate dramas and self-contained family universes.

In a domestic context where even a film like Jušić’s — widely acknowledged as Croatia’s film of the year — reached only 6,000 viewers in independent cinemas, a clearer yardstick for success is the renown these filmmakers are slowly but steadily gaining at international level. Quit Staring at My Plate premiered at Venice in 2016, where it received the FEDEORA Award for Best European Film. Jušić also grabbed the prize for the best director at Tokyo International Film Festival, while at the film won the Best Narrative Feature category at the Nordic International Film Festival. Ivona Juka’s You Carry Me, which revolves around three strong female characters, was one of the most successful Croatian movies in 2016 after its premiere at Karlovy Vary in 2015, before becoming the first Croatian film ever to be featured on Netflix. Antoneta Alamat Kušijanović, who lives between the US and Croatia, had her short Into the Blue featured at this year’s Berlinale, garnering a Special International Jury credit. The movie was also nominated for the student Oscar prize. She is also the first Croatian director to receive a Cinefondation grant for her debut feature movie, Moray.

Both Into the Blue and Moray are perfect examples of the subject matter these young directors excel at: teenage pains embodied in a strong female character, with Moray focused on that delicate moment between childhood and adolescence. “I am really keen to explore the relationship between mother and daughter, that special love, the biggest kind of love there is,” says Kušijanović. “Recently I met Jane Campion, and she told a very simple and a very truthful thing,” the director continues. “Women gave birth to the whole world. And if they don’t tell their stories, the world will know only half the truth.”

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