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Nona: street-fighting gran of Santiago

Filmmaker puts her grandmother's story in the spotlight as she examines the long shadows of Chile's brutal Pinochet regime

03 April, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

NONA, IF THEY SOAK ME, I’LL BURN THEM
Directed by Camila Jose Donoso
Certificate: 12a

THE long shadows caused by the Pinochet regime in Chile have begun to be explored more fully in recent years, as the families of the Disappeared demand answers, and as those who saw and lived through the Allende democracy being crushed are sharing their experiences through film, literary and art.

In 2011, the brilliant Nostalgia For The Light, a documentary that mixed family stories of political prisoners with musings on astronomy and the vastness of space, set a new standard in examining Chile’s history in film.

In Nona, If They Soak Me, I Will Burn Them, we are treated to a more abstract attempt to look at the after-effects of the brutal military dictatorship.

Artist and filmmaker Camila Jose Donoso has used the story of her grandmother as the starting point – and has also cast her Nona in the lead role.

Nona is leaving Santiago, at first we believe to recover from cataract surgery, but then it is suggested there may be a more sinister reason. Could it be because of some unspecified act of revenge against a lover? From the opening scene, it appears Nona is not one to be crossed. Street fighting skills picked up in the 1973 coup and aftermath suggest she will not suffer fools gladly. Her ability to put together a neat Molotov cocktail is testament that she did not stand idly by as fascism stalked the streets.

She heads to the coast and to the flea-bitten resort of Pichilemu, where she had bought a weekend bolt hole during the Allende period. She dislikes the place, treating it with what at first appears to be a city dweller’s condescending superiority – but there are deeper forces at play when it comes to her crankiness towards the world around her.

When a spate of mysterious fires break out – leaving Nona’s property strangely unscathed – fingers are pointed in the direction of the outsider, who we know is a dab hand with a gallon of petrol and a box of matches…

Making a film based on the eccentric life of your grandmother is an interesting beginning – and what a Nona she turns out to be.

She likes to let her hair down, likes to live life for the moment – and as the plot (of sorts) unwinds in a meandering way, we get the feeling she is still at war with those who helped Pinochet’s regime last for so long by their actions or passivity.

The director uses a mixture of digital film and old-style Super 8 to create a sense of home video authenticity, and wants us to believe we are somehow watching a documentary dressed up as fiction. It results in adding a layer of confusion to the proceedings, hanging over each shot like a fug of surreal thought bubbles.

Oddly enough, Spanish film Fire Will Come, which was released on Curzon Home Cinema last week, also tells a story about a loner type returning to a village – and finding themselves under suspicion when a spate of blazes break out. Both are clever character studies of those who stand outside and look in.

Nona is available on streaming site Mubi.

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