Viko Nikci, Writer/Director of ‘Cellar Door’

Cellar Door tells the story of young lover Aidie as she searches for her son while in the grip of the Church. But as she gets closer to the truth, she suffers uncontrollable shifts in time and place that send her spiralling.

Gemma Creagh sat down with writer/director Viko Nikci to open up the Cellar Door and find out more about his moving mystery thriller.

Cellar Door is showing at Cineworld, Eye Cinema, IMC Dun Laoghaire, The Gate and Movies@Dundrum.

 

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Irish Film Review: Cellar Door

DIR/WRI: Viko Nikci • PRO: David Collins, Viko Nikci, John Wallace • DOP: Robert Flood • ED: Viko Nikci • DES: Mark Kelly •  MUSIC: Ray Harman • CAST: Karen Hassan, Catherine Walker, Una Carroll

Writer-director Viko Nikci weaves together a fragmented narrative in Cellar Door that is only fully understood near the end of the film. The film follows Aidie (Karen Hassan), who appears lost and/or trapped in time as she struggles with memories of her pregnancy and searches for her baby. The audience is placed in Aidie’s shoes, wading through her key memories as she continuously cycles through them in search of an answer.

The film begins with a fully-clothed and submerged Aidie awakening in a bath full of water visibly confused. As she takes in her surroundings and her condition she asks herself “what’s the last thing you remember?”, setting the tone for what is to follow. The audience is then taken through Aidie’s conversation with her ailing mother, a classroom in which she is the teacher, a dance with her lover which morphs into her pregnant and alone in a Church, and ultimately in an institution with other unwed mothers. The timeline for these events is shaky, and they repeat over and over, with subtle differences as Aidie tries to make sense of them, sometimes guided by other versions of herself.

While these scenes do become repetitious in places, they bleed into one another seamlessly thanks to the strong cinematography, score and editing. These allow the audience to sometimes feel that they are gently falling between or sliding into memories, and other times feel a sense of entrapment and panic as Aidie fights for a resolution.

Cellar Door is difficult to pin down, not only in terms of its narrative but in its elusion of categorisation. There are moments when one might question if supernatural elements are at play and it feels like a horror, and others that resemble a drama. This uncertainty, however, is deliberately carried across the film so that it can perhaps best be described as a puzzle.

The film requires commitment on the part of the audience to make sense of the pieces as they come, and may suffer from some unnecessary repetition or elongation at times, but when its resolution arrives, making sense of what has come before it, it is thoughtful and poignant. Cellar Door tackles the difficult topic of Irish institutional abuse, drawing connections in a thoughtful way and forcing the audience to think throughout.

Loretta Goff

93 minutes
15A (see IFCO for details)
Cellar Door is released 25th January 2019

 

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‘Run & Jump’, ‘Coming Home’ and Saoirse Ronan triumph at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh Awards

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The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

After a week of Irish and international premieres, short films, documentaries, workshops and panels, the 25th Galway Film Fleadh came to a close with the annual awards ceremony. Taking place on Sunday 14th July before the closing film, The Sea, the awards were attended by international film stars Saoirse Ronan, Zachary Quinto, Fionnuala Flanagan and Will Forte, as well as the President of Ireland, Michael.D.Higgins.

Steph Green’s Run & Jump scooped the awards for Best Irish Feature and the Crowe Horwath Award for Best First Irish Feature. Steph Green’s feature debut after her short New Boy received an Oscar nomination, Run & Jump is an unconventional love story set in rural Ireland and stars Maxine Peake and Will Forte.

Other winners included Dead Cat Bounce’s comedy mockumentary, Discoverdale, which picked up Best International Feature. Viko Nikci’s documentary, Coming Home, which follows Angel Cordero, a man who has served 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, won both the Best Irish Feature Documentary Award and the Amnesty International Award for Best Human Rights Documentary.

President Higgins presented the special Galway Hooker Awards, which this year went to Miriam Allen, managing director and co-founder of the festival, James Morris, former chair of the Irish Film Board, and Irish actress Saoirse Ronan.

Click here for a list of all the winners at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh Awards.

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Galway Film Fleadh review: Coming Home

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 The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

Matt Micucci is moved by Viko Nikci’s documentary, which won both the Best Irish Feature Documentary and the Best Human Rights Documentary in association with Amnesty International at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh.

Coming Home, the first documentary feature by Viko Nikci, is a truly powerful work and very unique on many levels. The thing that comes across as most admirable is how a film about a man who suffered a great injustice and was incarcerated for 13 years for a crime he did not commit could be so sweet and touching instead of angry and aggressive. This is also the reason why it was able to charm the audience, whose reaction to the film was the warmest of any screening at this year’s fleadh.

Furthermore, rather than this being a film about a case, this is a film about a person, and rather than being an investigative documentary it is a human portrayal. Coming Home follows the story of Angel Cordero as he tries to reconnect with the outside world after his thirteen years’ incarceration. In doing so, he must reconnect with a world that has evolved on many levels – the technology for instance has taken some giant leaps, and things like smart phones seem new and strange to him. But what really drives the movie, is the story of his reconnection with his estranged daughter, who represented his hope and joy in his years of great struggle and pain, and the lengths to which he is willing to go to win back her love.

When time comes for the film to get into the details of the event which led to the incarceration, members of Angel’s family touchingly recall what happened with tears in their eyes. Still, even in the confrontation between Angel and the real culprit Dario Rodriguez, there is no anger but rather regret and guilt for the way things went. In an emotional sequence, Dario even meets Angel’s mother and bursts into tears almost instantly, asking her to give him a hug. This makes you wonder whether the reason why he has been out of jail since he was sixteen was because he had never received the attention and love that would have kept him out of trouble.

Ultimately, what Angel is most disappointed about is that he missed thirteen years of his life as a father. Indeed, the film goes through great lengths in trying to capture his struggles in winning the love of his daughter back, even breaking parole to travel to Florida and give her a birthday present.

Another great choice is to detach this film from the conventional perception of documentary filmmaking as an intellectual’s film genre. Coming Home is shaped in an accessible and moving way. This is achieved successfully also with the help of Robert Flood, the cinematographer who employs a use of a cinematography usually identified with narrative filmmaking. For instance, tracking shots are chosen over handheld shots. The music also successfully provides the film a modern feel, with its hip hop tracks and urban beats that further strengthen the appeal for a wider audience. This whole approach, however, does not mean that the cameras get in the way of the action, and it never really feels like it does. This point was further strengthened when, after the screening, Nikci explained that on over 5000 hours of shot footage, only about 90 of it was used, which means that they could choose to leave out whatever they thought was too staged or didn’t feel genuine.

Of course this was a point which could have been argued against, if it hadn’t been for the fact that all throughout the duration of the film, it never feels as if any of the subjects were putting on an act. The emotions are real whether it’s the fits of uncontrollable laughter or the tears, often fought back. As well as that, there is a will for everyone to be totally open in front of the camera, whether it’s Angel’s family or Angel himself. In fact, Angel’s presence is magnetic and his eloquence just incredible as well as his will to reveal his story to the world in order to clear his name. Quite frankly, he’s a star just by being himself. This the audience in attendance was able to see with their own eyes when Angel took to the stage at the Town Hall Theatre to answer a few questions, and for everyone it was the ultimate evidence of the fact that no, this film was not staged.

The events are real. Angel really did spend thirteen years of his life in prison for something he didn’t do. Therefore, there is no need to lie. There is a lot of pain behind this story, but more importantly a feeling of longing for rebirth, leaving the past behind and starting over and this is a positive message that is becoming uncommon in films of its kind, where anger and negativity reign supreme. Coming Home is a moving story which will capture the heart of many and will also be able to connect to a wider audience than the average documentary one.

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Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh preview: Coming Home

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The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

Coming Home

Friday, 12th July

Town Hall Theatre

17.00

Irish director Viko Nikci’s debut feature documentary, Coming Home, will have its world premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh tomorrow. It tells the story of Angel Cordero, a New York man released after serving thirteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Speaking to Film Ireland, Viko Nikci said, ‘I am thrilled that Coming Home will have its world premiere at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh. It’s an honour to have the film in a line-up that includes so many great new Irish films. Miriam [Allen – Managing Director of the Fleadh] and the rest of team have packed the programme with so many enticing shorts and features. It’s wonderful to be a part of it’.

Despite the evidence which pointed out Dario Rodriguez – who would confess seven years later – as the real culprit, Angel Cordero was sentenced to thirteen years in a maximum security prison. Coming Home follows him from the days before his release through him taking his first steps as a free man. He must readjust to an outside world he no longer recognises, and must re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter, who was only three at the time of his incarceration. Viko Nikci will also bring Angel face to face with the man who confessed to his crime in a one-on-one meeting.

Read Film Ireland’s full interview with Viko Nikci here.

Tickets for the world premiere of Coming Home are available to book from the Town Hall Theatre on 091 569777, or at www.tht.ie.

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Interview: Viko Nikci, director of ‘Coming Home’

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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.

 

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