Interview with Nora Niasari - Casa Antunez
The devastating Chilean earthquake of 2010 damaged over 370,000 homes. The city of Talca was near its epicentre, and many historic neighbourhoods were left in ruins. Casa Antúnez is an intimate portrait of one beloved home in Talca, and how its destruction reveals a divided family.
Casa Antunez is the first long form documentary you have made and tells the story of one family, after the 2010 Chilean earthquake damaged over 370,000 beloved homes. What inspired you to tell this story?
I was inspired by the experiences of the Casa Antúnez family and the resilience of Chilean post-earthquake survivors to tell this story. As a 21-year-old UTS architecture graduate, I had made some short documentaries in Beirut about post-war reconstruction but Casa Antunez was my first foray into long form storytelling. I was born in Iran and my family migrated to Australia when I was a baby. We moved houses and neighbourhoods all my life, so the meaning of ‘home’ had always been an unresolved question for me. When I met Jose Luis and his family in Chile, I was moved by their deep emotional attachment to one home, an eternal reference point, a container of memories, something that was completely foreign yet enchanting to me. They were grappling with their sense of identity and belonging in the aftermath of its destruction, I started to ask myself, what is the meaning of home when it’s gone?
How does it feel to be showing this documentary at Antenna Documentary Film Festival?
It’s truly an honour to be selected and nominated for Best Australian Feature Documentary. I think Antenna’s festival programming is world class and I have been looking forward to screening to a hometown audience. Although we don’t experience earthquakes in Australia, I believe bushfires and flash flooding have caused similar traumas in parts of the country, so I’ll be very interested to see how Australian audiences respond to the film.
The documentary centres around Jose Luis and his family. How did you meet?
After the 2010 earthquake in Chile, I was invited to Talca, a small city near the epicentre, as a videographer to film some reconstruction workshops led by Chicago architects. I met José Luis in one of these workshops as he was a prominent local architect leading key discussions. One day he invited me to visit his abandoned childhood home (Casa Antúnez). The adobe house was mostly standing but it was very badly damaged. When he told me, the house had been in his family for four generations and that he was planning to demolish it, I knew there was a story to be told. I continued following the story of the house and his family for three years.
Why did you choose the observational, poetic style, for this documentary?
There was a particular stillness around the streets of Talca after the earthquake, everything slowed down and I became very aware of the minutiae of everyday life. I think this feeling permeated into my stylistic decisions for the cinematography, sound and music of the film.
You also use flashbacks as a technique what made you decide to include these?
The exploration of memory became very important because the characters seemed to be living somewhere between their past and present. They were grieving the loss of their house and possibly some aspects of their childhood. The flashbacks were based on their memories and sense of nostalgia, but they were set in the ruins of present day Talca.
The documentary looks at the family’s divided opinions about what should be done with their family home, how did you make sure that each of their perspectives were equally shown?
My entry point to this story was through José Luis. I felt he had the biggest narrative arc because he had the most responsibility to the house. But for me the morality of the situation was very blurred and complex because each family member related to the same house in distinctive ways, according their individual memories and experiences. Naturally, each of them dealt with trauma and the grieving process at different times, which resulted in conflicting visions for the future of the house. So the editing process was an intricate balancing act to communicate how each character was dealing with trauma over time and how it impacted their closest relationships.
The documentary was filmed over three years, how did you keep the momentum and keep focus on the goals for this documentary while filming over this long period?
When I started making the film, I didn’t know how long it would take but I was 21 and extremely keen to make films no matter the obstacles. I am not the type of person to start something and leave it unfinished. I was lucky to have a very supportive co-producer in Chile and amazing local crew who made the experience very enjoyable. The family and entire neighbourhood were also very warm and hospitable, each time we came back to Talca we felt welcomed. I would say the biggest challenges were budget and language barriers. As an unknown director, I had difficulty getting funding grants so I financed the film myself and took on most of the key creative roles (Director, DOP, Editor, Producer). At the beginning of the process I couldn’t speak Spanish, and very few people in Talca could speak English, except when my assistant and co-producer were in town. I remember shooting a flashback with Karla, a local cinematographer and we couldn’t verbally communicate, so I directed her using storyboards and diagrams. Over time, I did eventually learn Spanish and Directing a film in Chile became much, much easier!
During the filming of the documentary what were your motivations for telling this story?
My key motivation was telling an untold story, inspired by the solidarity and spirit of the Chilean people. I believe the Chilean earthquake story was largely overlooked in international media because it was sandwiched between the disasters in Haiti and Japan, which were much larger in scale. I had watched several post-disaster documentaries focusing on the Meta story of large-scale destruction and they felt rather alienating to me. With Casa Antúnez, I wanted to explore the post-disaster experience through the metaphor of one house and one family because it felt much more universal and relatable.
What did the family think of the final cut?
José Luis is the only family member who has watched it so far and he loved it, he told me he understood new things about himself his family that he didn’t consider before. Since he was living in the UK at the time, we had a private screening a few nights before the World Premiere at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest in June. He also attended the festival screening and participated in a Q&A, which was very special. I hope to screen it to the rest of the family in Chile in the near future.
How did you finance the documentary?
The documentary was financed through independent means, with some support from Screen Australia in the final stages of post-production and distribution.
What do you hope the audience will take away from watching this documentary?
I hope the audience can find a personal connection with the documentary and better understand the human experience in the wake of an earthquake or any natural disaster.
Casa Antunez is screening at Chauvel Cinema 13 October 7.00pm: http://tix.antennafestival.org/Events/Casa-Antunez