Croatian-American filmmaker Jack Baric has made several notable documentaries and films, including “Searching for a Storm” about Croatian general Ante Gotovina. He is the co-founder of the inspirational sports media company GameChange, which he started with former USC All-American and NFL quarterback Paul McDonald, and has also recently released the book ”Thru the Tunnel”.
We caught up with the 58-year-old San Pedro-born Croatian to find out about his background, the interesting projects he has worked on, GameChange, his new book and more.
Can you tell us a bit about your Croatian heritage.
My parents, Lenko and Angelka Baric, were both born and raised on islands off the coast of Zadar. My dad is from a village on the island of Ugljan called Sutomiscica and my mom is from Veli Rat, which is on Dugi Otok.
My dad escaped communism in 1956 with his sister, Vinka, and a group of friends by taking a small boat to Italy. Vinka ended up in Melbourne, Australia and my dad came to San Pedro in 1960. Around that same time my mom arrived in San Pedro with her mother and sister, Ratka.
My parents met in San Pedro and married in 1963 and had three children, me, my sister Jeanette, and my brother, Leonard. I currently reside in Rancho Palos Verdes, the town right next to San Pedro. My parents live a five-minute drive away.
Was the Croatian culture a big part of growing up in San Pedro?
While I was growing up, my parents regularly attended dinner dances and events at the Croatian-American Club in San Pedro, and I would occasionally go with them. However, there are two other things that more greatly influenced me in connecting with my Croatian heritage:
When I was a kid, I got the opportunity to spend numerous summers on Ugljan and Dugi Otok. I loved it! My first visit was when I was just 5 years old and I went numerous times all the way into adulthood. In fact, I proposed to my wife, Denice in our old house in Sutomiscica. Her father, Tony’s parents were also from Dugi Otok.
After we married, we’ve brought our twins, Kyle and Katija to Croatia many times, starting when they were 4 years old. Our favorite memory was watching Croatia beat England at the bar of Hotel Dubrovnik in Zagreb during the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup. When Mario Mandzukic scored the winning goal, we ran onto Ban Jelacic and danced with the thousands of fans watching the game in the square.
The other thing that greatly impacted my connection to Croatia was the Homeland War. At that time, I co-founded a group called Croatian Spring, which was dedicated to supporting our homeland during the war.
We organized demonstrations to urge United States officials to help stop the war and we held youth dances to raise humanitarian funds for the war victims. We even had a sit-in at the office of a Southern California congressman to raise awareness for what we believed to be the inequitable policies of the global community toward the war.
During the time I went to Washington D.C. to work in the office of the Croatian American Association, which was set-up to lobby congress about the war.
One of my proudest moments in life was having the fortune of being at a meeting of the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs when it was announced that the United States would be recognizing Croatia as a sovereign nation. As the only Croatian at the meeting, I had the great honor of receiving congratulations from numerous congressional representatives. There are people who were far more deserving than me of being there, but I was still proud to have had the experience.
How did you get into filmmaking?
After I finished college, at the University of Southern California, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I got a job selling advertising for a pop culture magazine in Hollywood called Exposure. It was a super cool magazine with an amazing staff of really creative people, including Ryan Murphy, who went on to become a prolific television producer. I just loved the storytelling and creativity of Exposure’s contributors and I later started a few of my own magazines.
During this time, I decided filmmaking would be a great way to tell stories and I embarked on taking classes and reading books to learn how I could produce films. It was about ten years of doing this before I got the chance to make my first documentary film called “Port Town.” The film included several stories about my hometown of San Pedro. I consider “Port Town” to be my film school where I learned how to make a film.
I have made several documentary films, but there are two films and one documentary series that stand out. I produced a PBS film called “Bloody Thursday,” which told the story of how West Coast dockworkers won their union during the Great Depression. My executive producer on that film was a fellow Croat, Brenda Brkusic, and we won a Los Angeles Emmy for Best Historical Documentary Film.
I also directed a documentary film, “A City Divided,” which told the story of the history of the USC vs. UCLA football rivalry. The film was broadcast on Fox Sports and its red-carpet premier was during USC vs. UCLA game week at LA Live. That event was used as a fundraiser for the cancer research hospitals of both universities.
It was so popular that it became an annual game week event and has to date raised $4 million for the hospitals. My producer, Paul McDonald, a former USC All American and NFL quarterback, became a great friend and we later co-wrote “Thru the Tunnel,” an inspirational sports book and co-founded together a media company called GameChange, which is set-up to help empower people in their own lives.
At around the time I was making “Bloody Thursday,” I started hearing about the ICTY war crimes indictment against General Ante Gotovina and I felt compelled to make “Searching for a Storm,” a documentary film about the case and the war. I believed that the charges against General Gotovina were motivated by a desire of the United Nations to create a narrative that justified their policies during the war in Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina.
Their wartime policies were based on the idea that all sides in the war were equally guilty and not a war of aggression by the JNA and Serb para-military forces against Slovenia, then Croatia, and finally Bosnia & Hercegovina. As the ICTY had already prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, it was my opinion that they needed a big Croatian figure to meet the narrative of a civil war with no aggressor and, unfortunately for General Gotovina, the crimes committed against Serbs in the aftermath of Operation Storm made him a convenient target.
Although I believed that the UN was trying to make General Gotovina a scapegoat, I also was fully aware that crimes committed in the aftermath of Storm, especially against elderly people, created a black spot on what was otherwise a proud operation to win back the 25% of Croatia that was occupied.
It is with this in mind that I set out to interview numerous people about the case and the war. My travels took me to the Hague, London, Paris, Zagreb, Vukovar, Zadar, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Pakostane, and a small village near Knin. The sum of all these interviews led me to believe more strongly than ever that General Gotovina was innocent.
Three moments stand out for me in the making of that film: I interviewed a gentleman in Sarajevo, who told me the horrifying story of watching his parents and brother get escorted out of a UN camp during the siege of Srebrenica and tragically knowing that his family would be murdered if they left, which is exactly what happened.
I also interviewed Archbishop Ivan Prendja in Zadar where he told me about a sermon that he gave General Gotovina’s soldiers before the Maslenica offensive where Archbishop Prendja eloquently warned against committing crimes because he who commits crimes will always have a dark spot on their soul.
I am mostly an optimistic person, who tries to find the best in every situation, and so my favorite story from the film came in its epilogue. I interviewed two men from a village near Knin, one Croatian and the other Serbian. They told the story of how the Serbian gentleman saved the life of the Croatian man’s elderly mother during the occupation of Croatia when thugs came through the village looking to kill anybody that was Croatian. The love and respect that these neighbors conveyed for each other is what I cherish the most from the making of the film.
Making “Searching for a Storm” was difficult and I came very close to financially losing my company during the making of it. Taking the film on the road to Croatian churches and social clubs from Los Angeles to Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago and New York and shipping it to Australia where my Teta Vinka’s son, Robert Kapulica helped get it screened in Melbourne and Sydney, is what raised enough money from ticket sales and DVD sales to save my company. It also led to an amazing opportunity.
In early 2015, I got a call asking if I might be interested to direct a documentary series for HRT that comprehensively examined all aspects of Operation Storm. It was the 20th anniversary of the operation and HRT wanted to do something big.
I was hired by Sasa Runjic, who was a key executive at HRT at the time. I was greatly appreciative of the opportunity Sasa provided. He gave me the freedom and the resources to make an epic four-part documentary series. It was a lot of work! I, and other HRT journalists, interviewed over 70 people for the film, and I am very proud of the work we all did. My colleagues in the project were passionate and hard-working and I believe we made a really good series.
My biggest takeaway from the project was learning about the grueling and brave work that Croatian soldiers and engineers did to capture and hold the mountains above Knin during the dead of winter, nine months before Operation Storm. Storm gets all the glory for winning Croatia its nation back, but it was the courage and resilience of those who served in the icy winter on those mountains that made it all possible.
Can you tell us about GameChange and how joined forces with Paul McDonald?
When I set out to make “A City Divided,” my good friend Mike Setlich told me that the best person in the world to help me get it made was Paul McDonald. Paul had been an All-American quarterback at USC, played eight years in the NFL, and was the game analyst for USC football games on the radio. But most important, Paul was widely respected in the Southern California community among athletes, coaches and alumni of USC and UCLA.
When Paul and I met, he was interested in the idea of making a film to chronicle the USC vs. UCLA rivalry, but what got him really excited was the idea of using the film for a philanthropic cause, which we did for cancer research. Paul is just an amazingly good person who wants to help other people and, as our friendship grew, I came to learn that he had some dark times where outwardly he seemed like a fun and happy guy, but on the inside he was miserable.
I started noticing the wise nuggets of information that Paul would give me or other people we were with and he often told me that he wanted the next phase of his life to be dedicated to teaching other people the things he learned during his challenging times. I would always respond that he should do that through the prism of sports because it was his natural platform as a former elite athlete and there were so many great life lessons that playing sports could provide. If you are on a team you learn how to train for a goal, overcome hard defeats, work as a group, and exhibit good sportsmanship toward your opponent and referee.
The result of all these conversations was the formation of our company, GameChange. GameChange is a digital sports media company that tells inspirational sports stories and provides educational content that are all meant to empower the lives of our audience.
We distribute daily content via our website, gamechangenation.com and/or various GameChange social media channels on platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook (and soon Tik Tok). All of the GameChange stories are free and the company monetizes the content through the sale of mindset classes, books, apparel, merchandise, and sponsorships. GameChangeNation.com has already launched and the website’s e-store will be available in January.
Although GameChange provides information that is relevant for everybody, we are especially interested in reaching young student athletes in high school and college. Along those lines, we have a created a program we call the “Athlete Empowerment Project,” which allows college student athletes to tell stories and provide advice to their fellow student athletes, but especially to younger high school student athletes who can learn from their near peer “big brother or sister.”
The first installment of the series was recently shot with every member of the USC Women’s Basketball team and will be out soon on YouTube and other social media.
Can you tell about your new book ‘Thru the Tunnel.”
Paul and I launched GameChange with the release of “Thru the Tunnel” on Amazon. The book serves as the foundational piece of content that drives the ethos of the company. It has eleven parts, each of which are meant to help people develop self-belief, confidence, empathy, resilience, and the importance of living a balanced life where we love and serve others.
Ironically, by focusing to serve others, we believe that people end up reaching their own personal goals and “win the big games” of their life. Your mindset is much stronger when it is linked to helping others. In sports, teams like to refer to it as playing for each other instead of playing as an individual.
Let me give you a Croatian example. In the 2008 Euros, Croatia was in a knock-out game against Turkey, which went to extra time. In the last minute of extra time Croatia scored a goal and victory was certain, but 30 seconds later Turkey scored an equalizer and the game went to penalty kicks. Croatian players were devastated and during the PKs they missed all but one kick. They lost the game and were bounced out of the tournament.
Ten years later I held my hands over my face when, in the first-round knockout game of the 2018 World Cup vs. Denmark, Croatia’s most celebrated player Luka Modric missed a penalty kick that would have likely won the game in the last minute of extra time.
We would surely be devasted again, but something different happened this time. I later learned that Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic gathered his players before the penalty kicks and told them they knew how much Luka Modric meant to Croatia soccer and so they needed to step up for him right now. As we all know, Croatia won that game and made a historic run to the World Cup final. Dalic tapped into the powerful emotional motive of helping a friend in need to inspire his players and give them the strength to perform at their peak level.
Our book “Thru the Tunnel,” tries to do in print what Dalic did on the field that day. We tell inspirational sport stories and then put them into context that allows our readers to face their fears, learn how to overcome adversity, develop self-belief, win championships, and then use those championships as a platform to help others.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. I will always do what I can to promote Croatia. As an example, if you watch the YouTube podcast that Paul and I do (also called “Thru the Tunnel”), you will see a picture of Luka Modric over my right shoulder! In addition, it is my goal to make a documentary film at GameChange about the 1992 Croatia basketball team that made it to the Olympic gold medal game against the USA “Dream Team.” Croatia made it to final at a time when it was still at war and, was cut in half, with a third of the nation occupied. In my opinion, Croatia was the true “Dream Team” and if there’s anybody out there who can help make that film happen, let’s do it!
The GameChange website is gamechangenation.com and “Thru the Tunnel” can be found at the following link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578309653/