Hana Jušić, born in Šibenik in 1983, brought some necessary and the long-awaited fresh blood to the Croatian cinema. She studied film directing at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb, as well as Comparative Literature and English Language and Literature. Her award-winning shorts like Chill (2011), Terrarium (2012) and Zagreb Honolulu (2014) were greeted with great interest and affection, from both critics and the public, and her feature debut – the dysfunctional-family drama Quit Staring at My Plate, set in costal Croatia – was met with worldwide attention, as well as prizes in Venice, Toronto, Valladolid and Belgrade.
Marko Pogačar: The title of your first feature film, Quit Staring at My Plate, quotes an idiom very important to the mentality of your home region, Mediterranean Dalmatia. What’s to see in other people’s plates there? How does it fit with the film?
Hana Jušić: The idiom describes this sometimes suffocating curiosity about other people lives, this often malicious judging of how your neighbors lead their lives, that is intertwined with warmth and closeness in Mediterranean societies and families. The title is what my character Marijana shouts at her family, what the family shouts at their neighbors. Also eating together as a family is one of the rituals that, in these societies, gives often a false sense of normalcy, but also a site for sadism and belittling.
The film is set in your hometown, Šibenik. This is, though, depicted far darker than expected – especially for those who think of it in terms of a medieval picture postcard. What do we bare from home? Are there, and to what extent, autobiographical elements in the script?
Yes, I really wanted to avoid this postcard vision of Dalmatia which unfortunately, through so many kitschy representations, became so exploited that it is hard to imagine it outside a postcard or a trashy music video for Dalmatian traditional music. I wanted to show the intricate beauty of Šibenik with decrepit socialist buildings, dying industry, and rampant post-transition kitsch. I wanted to be true to it. I was very eager to succeed in this truthfulness, since I left it as a child, and although I have always felt close to it, I felt rejected. This film was also meant to be a proof, to me and to Šibenik, that I understand its mentality, the city and the people, that I am a part of it. As for autobiographical elements, there are none, in terms of story, but surely character traits, some dialogues, and micro situations are something that I have experienced. I have these sentimental, maybe even melancholic feelings for Šibenik and my childhood. The film was also a means to cure this melancholy.
The film is deeply rooted in the here and now – the post war, post industrial, transitional province and periphery. How big is the role of “the setting?” Is contemporary Croatia just a set for the universal story, or an important supporting role?
I love it when the films are spot on right, when I can recognize things as being rooted in the society. It irritates me when directors don’t put their characters in a believable social context. But I like to mix this realism with stylization, when everything is a bit over the top, but still spot on. Because this spot on is sometimes the most grotesque.
What directors and film schools/traditions do you see as formative? Is there an interesting tradition in the local film to refer to?
In my short films, I was very much (sometimes I think too much) influenced by Ulrich Seidl and Yorgos Lanthimos. In this film’s style, what influenced me the most is 60s modernism, particularly American modernism, the style of direct cinema and independent 60s films, such as Wanda by Barbara Loden or Alambrista. I thought this rough, but also very fluid style, that comes close to the actors, would suit this close and sometimes very violent and rough family. I also knew that the film would rely on the actors’ performances, so I wanted the camera to be subservient to them, not vice versa, as I did in my shorts.
The film has already collected a myriad of international prizes, the most recent being the best film prize of the Belgrade FEST. What does this kind of recognition mean for a young author, in the local and the international context?
In the international context, it means that I would probably get more attention with my second film, which can be a good thing, but also can be tricky, if the second film doesn’t surpass this one. So it is a reward, but also a kind of burden. In Croatia, everything depends on the future of Croatian industry in general – it could help me get the financing for my second film, but also this future script would be much more important. Apart from that, it makes my parents and grandmother very happy.
You debuted with 5-6 shorts, also award-winning. The overall topics do correspond. Could you sketch your main interests and preoccupations for us? A couple of one-liners that your films answer to?
What interests me most are certain characters. I always start writing from a character that intrigues me. I love to deprecate my characters, but I, at the same time, love them. I love to show the things they hide, to see through the self-image they want to create. I also love to show situations of subtle sadism, and dark ridiculing humor. That is my approach to life, as well.
Do you always write your scripts yourself? Is there something new springing out of a sketchbook?
I don’t think I have ever been so empty, in terms of ideas. It seems to me that I have become too wary, every idea that springs to me seems ridiculous, as soon as I write it down. It is hard for me to think of something worthy of 90 minutes. What certainly doesn’t help is the fact that I haven’t really seen an inspiring film in quite a long time. Most of the new festival films leave me completely disappointed. I always have to find a spark of inspiration in other people’s films, not only in life or in my head. I would like to see a film that would leave me flabbergasted. But somehow I can’t find it.
You read a lot. List us a couple of all-time titles please, as well as some of your current reads. Something to recommend?
I really love Latin Americans, from the times of this so-called Latin American boom. I love Terra Nostra, currently I am reading Tres Tristes Tigres. I love Nabokov very much, especially Ada and Pale Fire. I love Pynchon, Salinger. Faulkner’s Light in August. My big ambition is to read the complete Proust. I like him, but I am afraid to say it, since I haven’t read the whole cycle. I am also a bit ashamed to admit that one of my dearest novels is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – typical adolescent literature.