Oscars: Family Ties Are Tested in Croatia's 'Quit Staring at My Plate'

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

Director Hana Jusic says her debut feature attempts to subvert the typical story of rebellious youth escaping from a small town.

Not long ago, when people talked about Croatia, it was often in the same breath as the breakup of Yugoslavia and its attendant war and bloodshed. Now, 20 years later, Croatia is a member of the European Union and, with its historic architecture and miles of coastline, a top vacation destination.

But Quit Staring at My Plate, the country’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race, depicts neither of those Croatias. The multilayered debut feature from director Hana Jusic shows a side of Croatia that most people will never see. Here, a hodgepodge of historical architecture and post-industrial decay takes a backseat to the small everyday life of Marijana, an unremarkable young woman in a deeply patriarchal society who might — or might not — want to break free from her unremarkable existence.

The film is set in Sibenik, the picturesque seaside town where Jusic grew up. But in Marijana’s world, beautiful vistas are crowded out by the details of her dingy home life and meddlesome family.

“I wanted to make a film that wouldn’t be a postcard of this town. This town is really beautiful when you see it, but I didn’t want to show it in this way that people were used to seeing it. I wanted to have this 'verfremdungseffekt' (distancing effect), for people who live there to watch it anew from a different angle,” says Jusic, referencing Berthold Brecht’s estrangement effect where an audience is kept at an emotional distance from the material to remain a critical observer.

Occasionally one spies a patch of blue — a flash of the Adriatic Sea, like a glimpse of freedom — at the end of a medieval alleyway, but it quickly disappears and the walls of the family’s tiny two-bedroom apartment close-in. In a play on horror vacui, a horror of empty spaces, ugly piles of clutter fill every corner, from tchotchkes and plastic food containers to unwashed bedclothes.

“I wanted to make the apartment a character in the film, like it’s alive with them and it’s pushing them inside toward each other,” Jusic. “In Croatia people often buy too many things that are really cheap. They kind of bury themselves under these things and they never throw things away, so you have layers of lives that are being forgotten that are here, but you don’t see these objects anymore. You’re just walling yourself in with your stupid meaningless things.”

Every morning, Marijana leaves the apartment, which she shares with her tyrannical father, do-nothing mother and mentally disabled brother, and goes to her uninspiring job as a lab technician. And every evening, she returns home to their minuscule kitchen for a tense family meal where uncomfortable moments abound. In a rare outburst, Marijana talks back to her father, and he slaps her across the back of the head with a napkin. And yet, family dinners remain sacrosanct.

“Family meals are rituals that give the impression that everything is going on fine in the family,” Jusic explains. “These meals that are symbols of familial life are actually sometimes places where people are being the worst toward each other. Over these meals, you’re facing each other and some conversations that are not very nice spring up. So these meals were actually twofold, a means of operation and means of closeness.”

The idea of closeness — most of the time a suffocating physical proximity, but sometimes a familial tenderness — is central to the film. Marijana and her family practically live on top of one another; privacy is nonexistent. (The film’s title is a Croatian expression meaning “mind your own business.”) But when her father suffers a stroke, she becomes the head of the family and starts doing as she pleases — staying out all night and sleeping with strangers — as a means of exerting control over her life.

Marijana tries to leave it all behind, but her freedom is not sweet, and the bonds of home and family keep pulling her back. She is still a woman in a society dominated by men. She is neither wealthy nor beautiful. Realistically her options are few.

If Plate were an American movie, Marijana would likely leave her small town and make it big. But Jusic wanted to subvert that idea, opting for a different conclusion, one where the protagonist can go home again and that might be OK.

“(The idea) that you really have to do something with your life and you have to achieve something, you have to try hard not to waste your life — sometimes for me, for my generation, this seems really oppressive,” Jusic says. “And it seems very consoling sometimes that you just live your life from day to day and don’t really try hard to do anything with it.

“Sometimes you have a feeling that if you’re at least a bit talented in something, you have to use it up,” she adds. “So we are being commodified. We commodify ourselves in a way. And I don’t think it’s wasting [your life] if you live a simple life. It’s not wasting anything, you just live.”