Estonia Was a Distant Mysterious Country on the Map – Interview with Lucija Mrzljak

Lucija Mrzljak is a Croatian animation film director and illustrator. She studied at the fine arts academies in Zagreb, Krakow, Prague and Tallinn. She completed her MA in animation in Estonia as a student of Priit and Olga Pärn and got her first professional experience as an animator with Joonisfilm studio. Her debut film “A Demonstration of Brilliance in Four Acts” received a Primasound special mention at Primanima 2018.

How did you end up in Estonia and why did you choose to continue your animation studies there? 

After finishing my BA in Animation in Zagreb and Krakow, I was looking for a place where I could study for an MA degree. At that time I knew very little about Estonia, in my mind it was just a distant mysterious country on the map. What I knew that Estonians make bizarre animated films. Every year at the Animafest Zagreb festival I would see some Estonian films that I found quite fascinating, so I became curious about the place where they come from. Then I learned that Priit Pärn was teaching in Tallinn and that the focus of the program was storytelling. So I tried my luck and got accepted to the Estonian Academy of Arts. 

Your first film, “A Demonstration of Brilliance in Four Acts” is admittedly pokes fun at Estonian animation. Do you think there are some characteristic features, elements so that you can immediately recognise that you are watching an animated film made in Estonia?

In some way this film is a funny homage to Estonian animation and there are many references to contemporary filmmakers who influenced and helped us. Stylistically I think it is quite obvious that there is some kind of an ’Estonian touch’ in it. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what exactly it would be, I think it’s a combination of things. Generally in Estonian films there is a strong tradition of surrealism, black humour and a certain rough style of drawing.

How did you work together with your co-director  Morten Tšinakov, how did it influence the style and the story that you are coming from two different backgrounds?

With Morten we both used to study in the same course at the Estonian Art Academy, that’s where we met. Morten approached me with the first version of the script and some sketches. He asked me to join the project and from that point we started working on it together, directing, designing and animating. The story started as a collection of small sketches and absurd situations, maybe in a similar manner to the writings of the Russian writer Daniil Harms. Those elements and sketches were connected into a bigger picture, the story works in some way like a jigsaw puzzle. Even though we come from different backgrounds, we share similar interests in film, literature and music, so the collaboration was easy and fun. The film was made as a co-production between Estonia and Croatia and we spent some time animating in Zagreb and in Tallinn.Nowadays, I don't think there is a specific school that I would call typically Croatian. Rather, there are many wonderful animation creators who have their own individual approach to filmmaking.

What are the possibilities for smaller European animation communities to succeed such as the Estonians and Croatians?

Luckily, both countries have film funding organisations such as HAVC (Croatian audio-visual centre), EFI (Estonian Film Institute), KULKA (Cultural Endowment of Estonia), so authors can try to get support for their projects.

And if you come from a small country, co-productions are always a good idea not only for financial support but for connecting creative forces from different countries.
Lucija Mrzljak, Morten Tšinakov: A Demonstration of Brilliance in Four Acts

Croatian animation has a long history, how does contemporary Croatian animation look like?

Yes, Croatian animation has a strong tradition because of Zagreb School which had quite a distinguished style. But nowadays there is no specific style that could be recognised as Croatian. Today there are many wonderful animation artists with their own individual approach to filmmaking. 

You also illustrate children's books and make caricatures in political magazines. How can you reconcile these two things which are, at first sight, totally the opposite of each other?

I like this idea of capturing a story, an emotion, an idea into one single frame and seeing how it works in juxtaposition with text. But both require a completely different approach. In a book I try to follow the atmosphere of the narrative and usually there is a flow of many pictures that accompany the text. Political caricature is usually one image that has to convey a strong message because it often deals with contemporary issues in our society. It follows the text as visual commentary through metaphorical and satirical language.

Are you working on something now? Will you direct on your own or would you collaborate with Morten?

During the production of “A Demonstration of Brilliance in Four Acts” Morten and I spontaneously started developing another story, so at the moment we are in the middle of production of the new film, it’s called “The Stork”. Also parallel to this, I’m working on a new illustrated book in collaboration with an Estonian writer, Indrek Koff.

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