LIBERTYVILLE – The village of Libertyville and a local landmark play a starring role in a short film appearing at film festivals throughout the country and Europe, including a Dec. 4 screening at the Chicago Serbian Film Fest.
With the title of “Libertyville,” the film – described as a dramedy short – tells the real-life story of a Wisconsin native’s weekly trip to the cemetery at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Libertyville to visit her grandfather’s grave.
“It was one of the most vivid memories of my childhood,” said the film’s creator, Suzana Norberg, a 59-year-old actress and comedian now living in San Diego.
Norberg was 11 years old when her beloved grandfather, Dragoslav Stefanovic, died at age 62. Following Serbian tradition, his grave didn’t receive a headstone until the one-year anniversary of his death.
Every weekend, Norberg traveled with her grandmother, mother and brother from Milwaukee to picnic at her grandfather’s grave. A Serbian immigrant, Norberg’s strict grandmother enforced the tradition.
It typically was hot and humid, and the trips often involved bickering, Norberg said, with her mother as her grandmother’s “whipping post.”
“I would be sitting at the gravestone miserable, thinking this was kind of amusing in a ‘Saturday Night Live’ way long before there was ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and I always wished I had a movie camera,” Norberg remembered.
Creating a film based on the experience was her dream.
Norberg grew up watching “The Carol Burnett Show.” She wanted to be an actress, but the career really wasn’t an option in her family, she said, so she became an advertising copywriter.
In 2019, she lost her job, and then the pandemic hit.
“It truly was the pandemic, the stopping of the entire world, that finally gave me the time and the access to the team I needed [to make the film],” she said. “Without that, if life had just continued with working 9 to 5, I don’t think it ever would have happened.”
She not only created “Libertyville,” she’s pursuing her acting career full time. Norberg plays her grandmother in the film, which she produced and wrote.
The rest of the cast came to her somewhat serendipitously, she said, through casting calls and word of mouth. Dragan Sutalo, a Bosnian war refugee whose first stop in America was Chicago in 1995, plays the role of Norberg’s grandfather.
“It took a very long time, but eventually I found just the right person for every role,” she said.
Norberg shot the film at a cemetery in San Diego. She hasn’t been to the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Monastery cemetery since 2004, when her grandmother was buried beside her grandfather.
Flying into Milwaukee and driving with family to Chicago for the film screening, she said she intends to stop by the cemetery along the way.
“I’ll cry,” she said. “I’m a crier.”
She dedicated the film to her grandfather, who came to the U.S. in 1950 from Yugoslavia by way of Germany, where he had been a prisoner of war.
Norberg describes one of her fondest childhood memories as the time her grandfather conducted an Orthodox funeral service under an apple tree in her backyard for her hamster, Marshmallow. When she feared Marshmallow might get cold, he helped her dig up the shoebox and wrapped the hamster in an extra layer of paper towels. Then he conducted the funeral service all over again.
In the film, she re-creates the memory of sitting by his bedside when he was dying of cancer. She had grown up in a family where vulnerability really wasn’t allowed. Her grandmother pretty much ruled the household, she said.
She remembers as a child wanting to take her grandfather’s hand but feeling unable to do so. When that scene is re-created for the film, the young actress playing her as a child does take her grandfather’s hand.
“To this day, I can’t talk about it or watch that scene in the movie without fully melting down,” she said. ”That’s the only moment in the movie that didn’t actually happen. … That was my way to go back and take his hand.”
She would like to one day turn the short film into a feature-length movie, but, for now, she’s simply enjoying the moment.
“My grandpa was such a good man it gives me so much joy to see his name on the screen, that he’s not forgotten,” she said.
“I just cannot stop smiling. It feels good to do something you’ve always wanted to do. Just one more thing you can check off your list and have no regrets.”
With a tagline of “Come for the grief, stay for the show,” “Libertyville” will be shown at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 4 at the Chicago Serbian Film Fest (https://serbianfilmfest.com) at Pickwick Theater, 5 S. Prospect Ave., Park Ridge.
After the short film makes its rounds on the film festival circuit, it will be available for viewing online at www.suzananorberg.com.