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Uprising: Petra Cibilich on the Vulnerability of Following Your Instincts


The Flying Fish director speaks to LBB’s Zoe Antonov about her journey from being a receptionist at Flying Fish to being on their roster, and other twists and turns in her career

Uprising: Petra Cibilich on the Vulnerability of Following Your Instincts

Petra Cibilich was, she says, a pretty shy and nervous kid. So a career that would see her calling the shots and acting as creative ringmaster that might have seemed a little left-field. These days she’s a director with production company Flying Fish and, in truth, beneath that shyness, she always was deeply creative. At school, she painted and was, in her own words, an “essay-writing nerd”.

She soon fell in love with film as well, a medium she indulged in from quite an early age, watching old VHS movies with her twin sister and action films and series with her grandfather. This interest was fostered and supported by “a brilliant English teacher” she had in highschool, whose ability to make Petra look at film through a critical lens made all the difference. 

Petra is of Croatian heritage, second to third generation Kiwi. “I think my cultural background impacts my outlook in a very subconscious way,” she says. “I’ve always felt this sense of a mysterious ‘other’ outside of my life in New Zealand, the lineage of related people and lives lived before mine that came from a very, very different place.” With or without the mystery of the ‘other,’ Petra is certain that she always tries to lead with kindness and empathy in her work, and allow others to feel totally comfortable and able to be themselves, no matter what that would mean.

After high school, Petra went to The University of Auckland and pursued a Bachelor of Arts, double majoring in Film and English. Following this, she did a post-graduate course in Screen Production where her focus was writing and directing drama. “I made a handful of short films that, looking back now, were terrible, but going through the process of trial and error, experimenting and playing was a good learning point.” This is where Petra started honing her skills - she’s a big advocate of learning by doing. Albeit, those lessons take time, they are crucial to her development as a director.

Once she graduated from university, Petra managed to get an internship at a local production company. From running, making coffees, office admin and a little bit of director assisting, Petra did it all in those first months in the industry. But what she did most at that time was to observe and pay attention to how people work. This, and her personal projects of experimentation and self-teaching, in combination with her university education and experience, was probably where she started finding her own voice and style in directing. From her work one can easily tell that Petra is an extraordinary visual storyteller, with the ability to use light and perspective in an emotive and personal way. Her work for NÏKA portrays exactly that - the more vulnerable and raw side of her work.

“I honestly didn’t know where it would lead or how I’d be able to climb any sort of ladder, I just kept doing it.” And that worked! Once she took a reception job at Flying Fish, she knew she had found her ‘home’ in the industry, and saw the potential for growth there, due to the support of her d encouraging team. “It’s probably not often you hear directors tell you they started out as the receptionist of the production company they’re now repped by, but that’s my story. It’s different for everyone, there’s no one set path to becoming a director. You do what you have to do and surround yourself with the right people.”

Surrounding herself exactly with these people also led her to her first professional project - an online campaign for an insurance company. It was understandably nervewracking - the idea and project felt ‘bigger’ than her. But she stepped up to the occasion and the pressure pushed her to develop a meticulous attention to detail. “Despite this, my memories of that project are very fond thanks to the people I got to work with on it. I had the privilege of working with a top-tier DOP who was extremely kind, generous, and knew how to go at my pace as a newbie.” 

In terms of projects that have changed the course of her career, Petra says she isn’t sure if she can point any out, simply because she looks at it differently. “It’s a question of whether there’s a project that has changed me in some way, or made me feel more resolute in my voice and outlook as a director.” And there is! Recently, she did a project that was about encouraging young women to get out and be active in sports and rec, regardless of their skill level or ability. “That project really gave me a sense of purpose in my work, and helped me to see what sort of work I want to keep making.”

The challenges in her work is what Petra loves most - the trial and error of trying to translate an idea to paper is extremely difficult, but also exciting for her as a director. “It’s exciting to be motivated by a creative vision, but there’s a constant unease around the possibility that it also might not work.”

What really gets her riled up in the industry is being labelled a “female filmmaker,” says Petra. “It might sound a bit controversial, but I’m personally unsure about being boxed as a female filmmaker or female director - men don’t get labelled male directors, they are just directors. The fact that we are still talking about it and that there is still such a disparity means it’s still a problem with a long way to go in resolving. I’m proud to be a director who happens to be female. Voices and faces that aren’t just ‘male’ are crucial in film production and the wider cultural impact film has.” Petra believes that there is a long way to go until the industry gains this wide range of voices, and is to this day lacking the diversity it needs, although she has seen some movement in recent years.

Ultimately, Petra explains that she is driven by the desire to make meaningful and impactful work. “Which is a big challenge in and of itself. I trust my gut instincts more and more with every project, that drives me too and builds confidence. I love that instinct is part of taking each step forward to the end result, there’s something special about that to me. There’s a certain magic and vulnerability to it. I think it’s the way a director follows their instincts that gives character to the work.”

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Flying Fish, Thu, 30 Jun 2022 16:55:50 GMT