Branka Katić, Actress

Love Counterbalances Evil

She’s been in front of the camera since she was 14. She has had roles in around 80 films and television series in America and Europe, but she’s first and foremost a Yugoslav actress whose films are remembered and for which she’s received the top awards. She plays the female lead role in the Croatian series The Paper (Novine), which is being broadcast to a market of half a billion viewers

She has complemented her Slavic beauty with wonderful talent and charm that attracts directors and excites the audience. She has the ease of film expression that’s inherent in big screen actors. Branka Katić (1970) was born and raised in Yugoslavia. During shooting for the film Black Cat, White Cat, director Emir Kusturica accurately predicted that she would leave the country and head West, because he knew how much his films resonate. That film was the right ticket for the career that would follow. It was screened at the New York Film Festival with great pomp, and Branka was constantly pinching herself to make sure it was real, while shouting “Five minutes of glory, five minutes of glory!” She immediately gained agents in England and France. She was 29 years old and had amassed 15 years of experience in Yugoslav cinematography.

She has since gone on to forge a successful film and television career in Europe and America, where last year she shot the film The Roads Not Taken (2020), with Javier Barden, and this year The King’s Man, with Ralph Fiennes.

She was 14 when she shot her first role for the film Nije lako sa muškarcima [It’s Not Easy with Men], in which Milena Dravić played her first on-screen mother. It was many years later when Milena explained to me how good an actress Branka is: “First she was a wonder child, and then she grew into a wondrous actress. Whenever I watch Gorčin Stojanović’s film Ubistvo sa predumišljajem [Premeditated Murder], I cry every time I see Branka and Glogovac. A person can die from so much emotion.”

Today this wondrous actress has an enviable film and television career, having played close to 80 roles, many in foreign productions. She studied acting in Novi Sad, in the class of Rade Šerbedžija, with whom she also recorded the video for his song Djevojka iz moga kraja [Girl from My Area], and in America she also starred with them in the TV series Red Widow. She acted alongside Catherine Deneuve in the French film The Big Picture, in Michael Mann’s hit Public Enemies, in which she portrayed immigrant Anna Sage alongside Johnny Depp. We also remember her for her numerous roles in the most popular domestic creations, such as Srđan Dragojević ‘s films The Wounds and We Are Not Angels, among others. She can also boast of her roles in popular foreign films and series, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HBO’s Big Love, The Jury, Bored to Death and Waking the Dead. Among her more recent roles are that of the last Romanov empress of Russia, Tsarina Alix, in The King’s Man, and the lead role in Dušan Kovačević’s latest film Nije loše biti čovek [It’s Not So Bad to Be Human], which is expected to premiere this year.

That sense of security with which we grew up, as children of socialism and brotherhood and unity, was precious

When she recalls her beginnings, she inevitably thinks of her mother Nada, who one day read an ad in the newspaper Politika that children were being sought for a role in a film, plucked her daughter out of bed and shouted: ‘Come on, actress, here is the ad, prepare your pictures, go and sign up, and don’t act around my house anymore!’ She applied and got the role in her first film, It’s Not Easy With Men:

“It was then that I met the beautiful Milena Dravić, who played my mother. Later came the success of the cult film We Are Not Angels, which brought us both into the limelight meteorically. There was also Premeditated Murder, my wonderful collaboration with the dear Glogovac, who had already played a phenomenal role in his first film. Our scene under the bridge still give me goose bumps.”

She grew up in the part of New Belgrade in the vicinity of “Fontana”. her parents had a good mutual relationship, but also got on well with their neighbours and relatives:

“Everything was somehow idyllic, the greenery around the building, the good people around us. I grew up as one of Tito’s pioneers. That sense of security with which we grew up, as children of socialism and brotherhood and unity, was precious. I believed that we were all equal and that Comrade Tito was good. When he died it was the first time I saw my dad crying. I was ten years old. It was the saddest day of my childhood.”

UNHCR representative in Serbia Francesca Bonelli and Branka Katić sign a letter of agreement marking the official start of Branka’s engagement as a UNHCR HPS

She took her first steps in world cinematography with a role in the British TV drama Warriors, about English soldiers in the war in Bosnia. She went to the Czech Republic, where it was filmed, and while there the bombing of Serbia soon began in 1999, which threw her off balance:

“I cried at night and filmed with my swollen face during the day. One day the director said that he could use my mood for some scene that needed to be shot. I replied to him: I would rather be bad in your film than go through what I’m going through. Of course, it couldn’t have been harder for me there than it was for the people in Serbia, but I never cried more than during those months. After filming I went to London, until I was able to return to Belgrade.

“As soon as I could, after the bombing, I came to Belgrade, but those few months of absence enabled me to understand that I could also live and work elsewhere. And thus I embarked on that adventure. A few months later I fell in love, then got married, gave birth to two sons…

” Branka and her husband, director and producer Julian Farino, have been living in London for the last twenty years, though they also lived in Los Angeles for eight years. They have sons – Louis and Joe. Branka has been spending more time here in Serbia during the last year, because it is here that she’s filming, preparing for and performing in plays, despite the pandemic, and she yearned for the theatre.

It would also be good for us not to forget what we were taught when we were little – not to throw rubbish on the street

When she last year returned to the stage after a 20-year absence, jumping into the role of Baroness Sophie in the play Twilight of the Gods, the audience members unanimously showed how much they’ve missed her. She soon became a permanent member of the Belgrade Drama Theatre, where in April she had the premiere of Vladimir Tabašević’s NIN Award-winning play Tiho teče Misisipi [Quietly flows the Mississippi], directed by dear guest from Zagreb Ivica Buljan, who is otherwise director of drama at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.

The play Twilight of the Gods, which testifies to a split within a German family during the time when the Nazis came to power and fascism was born, provides an opportunity to think about fascism, or about the fear of fascism today:

“At the basis of fascism is the conviction that one life is more valuable than another. And to give yourself that as a right, to take that dominance only because you are powerful when confronting the small and powerless, is real evil for me, at all levels. Unfortunately, that way of thinking still exists in various forms today. We can recognise it in the domination of one race over another, one nation over another, men over women, man over nature.”

Branka is slowly returning to her Belgrade. She says that she loves it a lot, but a lot of things concern her. For example, the air quality is terrible and she wonders how and why so much pollution occurred and what the people in charge of environmental protection are doing about it. Do they love their children and do they think of their developing lungs and the long-term consequences that such huge pollution can produce? Is it known who sells lignite on our market? Why is it permitted to use this fatally unhealthy mixture for heating? What is happenings with the dump in Vinča:

“No divisions should exist with these problems, we should all be on the same side, which protects all of us, united around the ideas of betterment, a greener future, care for people, ideas that are more important than anyone’s material interest. It would also be good for us not to forget what we were taught when we were little – not to throw rubbish on the street. Let’s give a little more love to our capital, so that it will shine again one fine day.

Branka Katić, still from the series The Paper (Novine)

“And I would like the next conceptual design of any square, fountain or new building to appeal to someone who is professional and gifted, and thus has more taste to make something beautiful, which will better suit the existing look of the city.

“Likewise, that flood of shopping centres is completely incomprehensible to me. Is it possible that we really need them all? Consumerism is another of the truly destructive passions of modern society. At the moment I’m more interested in ‘degrowth’, which teaches us how to use that which already exists and reduce our needs to what we really need.

“There is enough of everything for everyone on our planet. And instead of finally moving, as a civilisation, towards a higher, nobler level of consciousness, and trying to help each other, to protect those for whom protection is essential, to understand one another and give our all to stop the destruction of our beautiful planet, we are trapped in the short-sighted world of neoliberal capitalism, in the jaws of banks and big companies; we’ve become slaves generating profits for the rich. Wars continue, innocent civilians are bombed, and refugees whose lands have been completely destroyed experience humiliation and ill-treatment worse than if they’d remained hidden in the basements of their devastated cities. Where is our humanity? Where is compassion for the suffering of others? Where has love gone?”

That fascist and nationalist war-mongering rhetoric that was shouted from all sides in the ‘90s is, unfortunately, still around today

One of this actress’s biggest television successes in recent years is certainly the Croatian series The Paper, which ended after three seasons and was broadcast to a market of half a billion viewers! This is absolutely the most successful Balkan audiovisual project. In the lead role of journalist Dijana Mitrović, Branka evoked all the hardships and beauty of a job in which it is increasingly difficult to find true meaning:

“The Paper is probably the most exciting project I’ve worked on in recent years. The role of Dijana is the complete opposite of the way people perceive me, and as such she was immediately very challenging for me. My cheerful energy fell into Dijana’s destructiveness. She is a great journalist, someone who always insists on the truth coming to light while living various lies in her private life, she is an alcoholic, in an emotional wasteland, completely incapable of loving herself and others.

The excellent screenplay came from the pen of journalist and writer Ivica Đikić, whose many years of experience and true understanding of the material proved invaluable. I was afraid of what my Croatian pronunciation would be like, but our excellent director Dalibor Matanić told me that he wasn’t interested in my accent at all, rather in the state of my character. He couldn’t have told me anything simpler and stronger to relax me. He is a brilliant director and a wonderful guy. The thought that we’re being watched around the whole world is very exciting to me. It was while filming this series that I realised how increasingly difficult it is becoming to work in real investigative journalism. Newspapers should give us the flow of information, and not be propaganda tools of the ruling party and sources of disinformation.”

Photo: Vladimir Ilić

After filming around the world and living in Los Angeles and London, Branka has in recent years come to more comprehensively and complexly understood the concept of political correctness. Today she explains it as follows:

“I like the idea of insisting on political correctness, because too much and for too long we’ve given ourselves the right to think that we, as members of the ‘white race’, are better than others. And however much it might seem to you that this is a limiting extreme, it seems to me that it is essential to place that relationship on healthier foundations. Racism, which is still present in all societies, is unacceptable for me personally. Terrible crimes are still committed today as a consequence of all those prejudices, so the attitude of a large number of people must change and everyone must be given a chance to have equal rights and the chance for a normal life.”

She says that she would be filled with wholehearted joy if she saw that we’d learnt at least something from the bloody massacre that took place in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. She is aware that those wars were a huge step backwards, into darkness; destruction from which we have yet to recover:

“That was a training ground for such horrific crimes that even to this day I’m incapable of understanding where so much evil that bubbled to the surface came from. Why did so many innocent civilians have to perish; who had an interest in starting a fratricidal war among nations who’ve lived together for centuries? That fascist and nationalist war-mongering rhetoric that was shouted from all sides is, unfortunately, still around today. And all that misery, all that suffering for what? Who won in the end? I would say only war profiteers. And people on all sides perished and suffered. Memories of the wars have stratified, but the victims carry the memory, the conflict endures in the minds of the people. No one from the circle of my family and friends supported that war.

Newspapers should give us the flow of information, and not be propaganda tools of the ruling party and sources of disinformation

“I have to add something else to this: none of my people were killed in the war, and perhaps that’s why it’s easier for me to be a pacifist than it is for people to whom terrible things happened. I will never understand why people in the Balkans, who speak the same language, killed each other. What is that in people?

“I’m apolitical; I’m not passionately attached to any party, and I think it’s wrong to ‘love’ politicians or a party, it is more important to appreciate their programme and to know that you can trust them, that they are people of their word and trustworthy, and that they are honest in their work and intentions, and that personal profit isn’t more important to them than anything else. Again the word love comes to my mind. Where there is love, everything is better. Love is the counterbalance to all evil.

”Alongside the numerous awards she received for her roles as an actress, Branka recently received another prestigious acknowledgement – she became a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for Refugee Rights. During the 70 years that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has existed, several celebrities around the world have had an opportunity to receive this honorary title. In addition to having achieved top results in their field – be that art, sport or something else – a UNHCR goodwill ambassador is someone who has shown compassion for people forced to leave their homes and is prepared to publicly advocate for their rights.

Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie and Ben Stiller are among the goodwill ambassadors who support the work of the UNHCR, and the last among them from this region was recently departed musician Đorđe Balašević.

Speaking to CorD, Francesca Bonelli, UNHCR Country Representative for Serbia, based in Belgrade, said:

“When we heard and saw the way Branka Katić speaks about refugees in public, we were touched by her solidarity and empathy with people who had to abandon their countries. Her sensitivity, spontaneity and the determination with which she advocates for the interests of refugees were more than enough elements for us to be sure that she would be an excellent UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for refugee rights.

“When we contacted her and offered her this role, we were very happy that she accepted. In just the few months that we’ve been collaborating, Branka has shown great commitment to helping refugees. She has opened many doors with numerous opportunities for the further activities of the UNHCR in work on the inclusion of refugees in Serbian society.

“We look forward to our joint projects that will encourage the creation of conditions for even greater inclusion and integration, where refugees will be able to fully realise their full potential.”

As happy as Branka is about this recognition, this celebrated actress also sees it as a great responsibility:

“When I received the offer to work with the UNHCR to help integrate refugees in Serbia, I felt pride, responsibility and a true desire to invest my energy in helping people who are risking their lives in an attempt to find a new home for themselves, so that they can live in peace. Their homes have been destroyed, conflicts continue smouldering in their countries.

To traverse all those kilometres, to risk crossing the high sea in flimsy rubber dinghies, all that is done by someone who really doesn’t see any future in the homeland they’ve left behind.

Only great despair, but also courage, could compel them to embark on that dangerous and uncertain journey. When a person loses everything, their home, their city, their country, the only thing they are left with are hope and dreams. And if they manage to survive all those misfortunes, isn’t it humane for us to offer them an embrace of sincere support. We are all human and we have so much in common. And we all want security, love, the opportunity to contribute to our community, to do something meaningful and useful, for our children to grow up in peace. It is important to have compassion for suffering others, an understanding of their basic human needs and rights. All people of this world have the right to a new beginning in life and the right to happiness.”

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