I was working as a journalist in Zagreb at the time. When I read these attacks against Furlan, including one titled “The Hard Life of an Easy Woman,” I felt physically ill. I am a woman of Croatian and Jewish descent and this was the first time in my life that I’d encountered anti-Semitism and misogyny at such a personal level.
Today, two decades later, neo-Fascism still dominates Croatian politics. Notably, last April, the Jewish and Serbian communities boycotted the government’s official Holocaust commemoration over the center-right government’s alleged inaction to stem the rise of neo-Nazism.
Because of this, I began to wonder what had happened to Mira Furlan. I reached out to her and we recently had a lengthy email discussion covering topics ranging from the nature of identity to her reflections on the past.
In the 1980s, Furlan was active in the Yugoslav feminist movement, which addressed violence against women and children, lower wages for female workers, the political marginalization of women despite formal female representation in the socialist assembly, and pervasive legal gender inequalities. The socialist government at the time responded unfavorably to the feminists, accusing them of importing “a bourgeois ideology from the West.” When feminists supported the anti-war and human rights movement in Croatia in response to rising ethnic nationalism, they were accused of being pro-Communist and “Yugonostalgic.”
Vilified by the Croatian media, Furlan and several other prominent Croatian feminists received death threats. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 (Yugoslavia had been a socialist federation of six states, with Croatia and Slovenia declaring independence in 1991, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992), war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Furlan was attacked in the press in 1991 for performing in a theater festival in Serbia, “parading her naked breasts on stage…while people were being killed in Croatia.” Less-well-known actors called her a “traitor” and “collaborator.” Then, a series of anonymous “investigative” articles was published accusing Furlan of feeling schadenfreude towards Croats because her mother was Jewish. She was described as often cast in the role of a “loose woman” whose love life pointed to a long history of rejections by Croatian men. The articles’ depictions of Furlan echoed the ugly archetype of the Jewish woman as whore.
Furlan received death threats, including messages on her answering machine that described in graphic detail how she was going to be brutally massacred. President Tudjman personally intervened to confiscate her tenancy rights to an apartment she had inherited from her grandmother.
In November of 1991, as she and her husband prepared to leave Belgrade for the U.S., Furlan published in the Croatian weekly Danas a “Letter to My Co-Citizens.” “I cannot accept war as the only solution, I cannot force myself to hate, I cannot believe that weapons, killing, revenge, hatred, that such an accumulation of evil will ever solve anything. Each individual who personally accepts the war is in fact an accessory to the crime.”
Dubravka Ugresic, one of Yugoslavia’s most respected writers and scholars, who faced similar attacks in the Croatian media, points out that Furlan’s experience was specific to women who dared to speak out about ethnic nationalism and war. Ugresic and others were described as “feminists raping Croatia.” And no one in the film or theater community defended Furlan, publicly or privately.
Furlan moved to New York with four suitcases, and no money or contacts. “We slept on my friend’s couch and I worked as a waitress and my husband as a mover,” she said. “It was one of the harshest winters in New York and homeless people were dying in the street. But our ‘negative’ motive was so strong, we felt such disgust towards the senseless slaughter in our country, that even that felt better than staying and participating.”
Three years later, in 1994, Furlan got her big break in the U.S. She was cast as Minbari Ambassador Delenn in the television show Babylon 5. “That role gave me a chance to get back into the world I knew. It was like finding a new family after my old one disowned me” said Furlan. “Through Babylon 5 I entered the extraordinary science fiction fan tribe. I’ve been going to conventions all over the world ever since. Babylon 5 gave me my life back at a crucial moment.”
In 2002, despite vowing to never go back to Croatia she returned to play the lead role in Medea. “Being back in Croatia was extremely exciting but also extremely hard. The pressure was enormous. The onslaught of the media on me was relentless. It was hard to focus on work with all that madness going on around me. Every word I dared to utter got misinterpreted, drawn out of context, used and misused.”
As time passed, Furlan continued to act, including in the hit TV show Lost. In 2010, she published Clearance Sale, a book in Croatian based on articles she wrote for a now-defunct Croatian magazine exploring topics such as the war in the former Yugoslavia and living in exile. Furlan also wrote a play titled Till Death Do Us Part based on her youth and her family including how her mother’s illness and untimely death, and grappling with her Jewishness and her deep sense of not belonging.
One of the questions I had when reaching out to Furlan was whether she regretted her activism. She told me that if she could do it all over again, the choices she made that cost her both professionally and personally would be no different. “I always remember the play Biography: A Game by Max Frisch. The main character is given the chance to live his life over and make changes where he thinks he made mistakes or had poor judgment. So, he relives those moments and guess what? He always ends up making the same choices. Why? Because that’s who he is,” said Furlan. “That idea spoke to me when I was 15, when I still had my life ahead of me. Now, decades later, I still feel you can only be yourself and act accordingly, whatever the price may be.”