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For contest-winning UT graduate, the chicken definitely comes first

Who wins in "Chicken vs. Penguin?" The filmmaker, Marko Slavnic

Patrick Beach
Marko Slavnic plans to use his prize money to pay his cast and crew and start a new project.

Marko Slavnic, like a lot of aspiring filmmakers, is big on evangelizing about the democratization of technology. Just get a camera and start shooting, he says. Who knows? You might enter a contest and win $100,000.

It happened to him. Slavnic's short video "Chicken vs. Penguin" recently beat out some 1,200 other entries in a contest sponsored by Nikon, which is why Slavnic is smiling.

To better his chance, the 26-year-old University of Texas graduate and freelance videographer entered four films, but the judges fell hard for "Chicken," a gently amusing piece on two people — one in a chicken suit, the other in a penguin suit — duking it out, reconciling and exploring the first aid applications of a dead fish at two presumably competing restaurants. The film was shot on South Congress Avenue last fall. You can see the finished product here .

And before we proceed any further, Slavnic wants to thank his actors, Tess Allen and A.J. Genzlinger, as well as his friend and right-hand man Andrew McDonald.

"I realize 'Chicken vs. Penguin' is no 'Citizen Kane,' but I'm moving forward," Slavnic says. "You never know where this will lead you."

Decent soul that Slavnic is, he wants to use part of his prize money to pay his cast and crew — almost all of whom worked for free — and as seed money to finance a feature. He's a big noir fan and has a thriller in mind.

And if that doesn't work out, Slavnic's life could one day provide fodder for an autobiographical film. His parents, Ivo and Ivana Slavnic, came from their home of Sarajevo to Austin in 1991, not long before the Yugoslav wars broke out, so that Ivo, who'd won a Fulbright, could go to the University of Texas.

"We left everything behind thinking we'd be right back," Slavnic says. "We lost everything."

Imagine being that kid, turning on the news and seeing your home country being ripped apart by warring factions. He spoke only a few words of English then, and his first day at Matthews Elementary School at the end of August of that year "was full of hand signals and understanding smiles," according to a front-page story in this newspaper.

"But I was about to turn 8 years old," he says. "I bounced back. My parents had a harder time. My mom was a TV producer (in Sarajevo) and she had to wait tables." Mom is now a high school teacher, dad a substitute. Slavnic adds that his mother is "still the first person I go to with every movie."

Eventually granted refugee status, Slavnic and his parents settled here. The wars shuddered to a close in the mid-'90s, but the family's apartment building was destroyed, along with all their stuff — including Slavnic's He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures, which he sometime later tried to find replacements for on eBay.

These days he does more constructive things with his time. There are full days at the job — which he much prefers to bartending, which he did before — a workout, maybe some quality time with his girlfriend, then working on his own films until midnight or beyond. He has two submissions going to the 2010 Doorpost Short Film Contest. What, he hasn't used up all his luck already? Maybe not.

"It feels really good for someone to tell you, 'Hey, I believe in you,' " he says.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603