Viko Nikci’s debut feature documentary, Coming Home, which will be premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday, 12th July, tells the story of Angel Cordero, a New York man charged with attempted murder – a crime he did not commit. It is a tale of great injustice. Despite the evidence which pointed out Dario Rodriguez – who would confess seven years later – as the real culprit, Angel was sentenced to thirteen years in a maximum security prison. Coming Home follows him from the days before his release to his first steps as a free man, as he tries to reconnect with the outside world and is faced with his biggest challenge in trying to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter, who was only three at the time of his incarceration, and seems to want nothing to do with him.
Matt Micucci met up with the film’s director, Viko Nikci, to find out more about his fascinating documentary
How did you come across Angel Cordero?
His story was picked up by the local newspapers in New York. It turned out that I knew somebody who had done some time with him, so through the connection I spoke with his wife who was looking to get some kind of project going about the case. Once I got to researching a little about him, I realised that there was something about Angel that deserved more than just a few news articles. Even from a book written by one of his lawyers, Claudia Trupp, where she talks about his case in two of the chapters, I could tell he would be a very cinematic character. You get to know him and in five minutes you realise that he didn’t do what he was charged with, that he is quite charismatic and has quite a magnetic presence. So I thought, ‘you know what? You put a camera on him, things are going to be interesting.’
What approach did you use in telling his story?
My approach was not so much ‘Angel the case’ but ‘Angel the person’. We just followed what happened. The film is called Coming Home and it’s about a man coming back home. Guilty or not, things are going to be difficult for you when you get out of prison after so long. He tries to reconnect with the outside world after thirteen years – things like technology or life in post 9/11 New York. Also, he met and married a woman while in prison, so how would it be living with her under the same roof for the first time as husband and wife. But in the end, it turned out that the real challenge was his daughter. Sarah was three years old when her father was incarcerated. She was the physical manifestation of hope for Angel. She was what he was returning home to, and it turns out that he was coming home to a sixteen year old girl who wanted nothing to do with him and it became very painful to see him try to reconnect with her.
The relationship between Angel and his estranged daughter is a driving force in the film.
Absolutely. We had considered a different way of filming it, but the day he was released from prison, it felt like the relationship between him and his daughter was what the film naturally wanted to be about, and if there was ever a plan to make this film a platform for Angel’s case, that was quickly abandoned. His role just became that of a dad who wanted to be a father again to a girl who didn’t want him, and Angel was so articulate and emotionally engaged with the camera that we realised the intention goes out the window and you follow what’s happening in front of the lens.
Thematically speaking, the film also seems intent in portraying freedom and the simple things in life.
Freedom for Angel was drinking a cup of coffee in the sunshine. It’s the little things that matter, he says. Another thing was that after years where the fastest he had ever moved was running pace, driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour was like warp speed to him. Those little things that we take for granted would become for him the subtext of the film.
Home, he comes to realise, is not a place. It’s a person. But to this day, he’s not completely free – like he says, he’s still on a leash. He hasn’t been exonerated, so he has five years on parole and numerous stipulation. One of them is curfew, so he has to be home by 9 pm. Another is that he can’t leave New York City. One of the things that happen in the film is that his daughter moved to Florida and he had been looking forward to giving her a birthday present which he had bought himself in person for the very first time, and she left before he had the opportunity to do so. So he made a decision to follow her, breaking parole and risking his freedom just for this one moment with his daughter, which we were able to capture on film.
What impact did these thirteen years have on Angel as a person?
In the first days of filming, when he was still in prison, he described prison as a place with no enthusiasm, where a smile can get you stabbed. He says that in prison there’s a feeling that any day you could get killed or be put in a situation where you will have to protect yourself, so in order to survive he had to completely shut down and not be in touch with any emotion at all, just pure instinct. When he came out, his release of emotion was quite extraordinary to watch – he had held it back for so long.
What about Dario Rodriguez, the real cluprit in this case?
The first day we started filming, Rodriguez confessed, and we knew we had something on our hands. They had one encounter, which plays out on camera. The innocent and the guilty. But it’s not what you would expect. They both walked away a little bit wiser and a little bit humbled by each other. Rodriguez who committed the crime was serving time for another crime. He had been in prison since he was thirteen. He is a guy that slipped through the cracks, let down by society. When you arrest a kid for selling heroin, whose fault is that? You get a sense of this tragic, dangerous bad guy with a tremendous amount of guilt for this one crime, which he committed but which somebody else did the time for.
This is your first feature length documentary. What was your approach to the genre?
I still don’t consider myself a documentarian. I am mainly a screenwriter and a narrative director. I’m involved in The Factory and other projects in Ireland, but most of the films I work on are shot in studios in LA. This made me think I wanted to use a cinematic approach. If Angel had a walk down the street, instead of filming it handheld, myself and Robert Flood the cinematographer would put it on a big camera and a big lens and work around the subject. So as we filmed it, we were constantly covering it, exposing it, composing in a cinematic way. In the edit room, I look at it and ask myself ‘if this was the script and these were the scenes I had, what would I show next?’
Did this approach help give the film a modern feel?
I wanted to make a film that the subjects would watch. I didn’t want it to make it artistic or inaccessible. I think the great success of the film is that it doesn’t feel like a documentary; it feels like a film. We even use a hip hop flavour in terms of the music, using a mixture of songs by artists P Diddy and the score by Rori Coleman and Dawn Kenny. And the people speak in that New York inner city confidence – it’s almost poetry. A screenwriter wouldn’t be able to write dialogue like that. And even if a writer were to write it down, an actor wouldn’t be able to act it out.
Production-wise, was it a difficult film to make?
Cinema has been around a long time, but it feels like now there are new tools and ways to tell your story and make it look good and big. Even though we didn’t have a big budget, we were able to make it look great with the cameras we used like the Red and the Epic and achieve a cinematic look which was more dynamic than shooting on film. The best thing was that the timing seemed to be great. The technology was right, but even more importantly the subject. If I had met Angel five years earlier or five years later, I wouldn’t have been able to have captured this story.
Has working on this film had an impact on you personally?
My kid is the same age as Angel’s daughter was when he was wrongly arrested. It kind of makes you think about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Angel will always be under the shadow until his name is cleared. We’re hoping that the film will raise enough awareness and prove that he didn’t commit this crime.
We were able to get clearance from the department of justice for him to come to the screening. I’m from New York but my wife is Irish and I’m absolutely thrilled about having the premiere here in Ireland, and in Galway for the festival’s 25th anniversary – it’s a big deal! This could be premiering anywhere – I just feel lucky that it’s here and the fact that Angel was able to come over is an added benefit.
Coming Home will be premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh on Friday, 12th July at 17.00 in the Town Hall Theatre.