Thursday 5 December 2019

Opportunity knocks

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Inspired by the horrors of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, The Door is in the running for best short film at tonight's Oscars. As the door to Hollywood success edges open for Dublin director Juanita Wilson, she tells Barry Egan she is happy to go wherever the story takes her but she'll always come home to Ireland

When on April 26, 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station blew to kingdom come, so many lives were irrevocably ruined. Nikolai Fomich Kalugin's six-year-old daughter had black spots all over her little body. One day, she whispered into his ear in the hospital: "Daddy, I want to live, I'm still little." His wife said to him: "It'd be better for her to die than to suffer like this. Or for me to die, so that I don't have to watch any more."

Later tonight in Hollywood, Irish director Juanita Wilson has a good chance of winning best short at the 82nd Academy Awards for her film about Nikolai's loss, The Door. The film opens, silently, with a long shot of a man breaking into an abandoned housing complex somewhere. It seems like forever until the man says in voiceover: "We didn't just lose our town, we lost our whole world." The words are haunting.

One of the more intriguing things about The Door, which was shot in Prypiat, is that the C word is never mentioned. The 16-and-a-bit minute film (Juanita's debut) could be about any couple touched by fate in just about any place in the Soviet era, or beyond. The catastrophe is never identified as Chernobyl, and the story is better for it; it becomes the human story of -- as Juanita told me last week in Dublin -- "coping with loss. And the only control you have over it, is the dignity with which you can treat that whole situation. That's what intrigued me about it. But I think it is much better to see it without knowing anything about it."

"It is really about," she continues, "you know, how would you feel one day if someone walks into your home and says 'Pack up, you have to leave now'? And you can't bring anything and then you find out you can't come back and then your whole life is changed. It is like something out of science fiction."

The idea for The Door came from reading a review of Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl. Alexievich compiled people's experiences, in their own words, of Chernobyl a few years after the disaster. Kalugin's story stayed with Wilson. "One of the things that happened is that he went back and stole his own front door from his house and drove it on the back of a motorbike through a forest," Juanita says.

"Afterwards, that idea completely stayed in my mind. It is such a visual image. And it intriguing as to why someone would do that and whether they are totally crazy or not. And then you reveal at the end that it is part of a funeral ritual to lay the dead out on the front door. And so we bought the book and read it. It is so personal and so honest. It is incredibly impactful. We optioned the rights to it. And the story, more or less, wrote itself from there. It is very simple and streamlined but it is a true story."

The Dubliner was quiet and shy and short-sighted as a child. The youngest of five, Juanita believes that "most things passed me by" until she was prescribed with glasses at the age of eight. She says that someone recently described her as "a sharp little organism".

"I don't know what that means," she laughs. "I think I'm quietly determined."

Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was the first record she bought. She was also into bands like Madness and The Cure. She grew up near the mountains in Stepaside near Dublin. "I'm a mountain girl. That might explain a lot," she smiles. "My father always said people are either mountain people or sea people and I'm a mountain person. Growing up, I suppose, you are always a little bit apart." She says that she now thinks that people go into creative jobs not out of loneliness but somehow "slightly outside of things and wanting to be part of things."

The softly erudite thirtysomething studied fine art in the National College of Art and Design and did a postgraduate diploma in arts management in University College Dublin. She went to Paris and au-paired and studied mime before turning her hand to films. "I have always been drawn to things that are visual," she says, "and not dialogue-based." She has no idea why. It is not easy to unravel just who Juanita Wilson is. She talks in slow, intelligent sentences. There is a sense of mystery about her. She reminds me of something Anais Nin once said: "The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery."

Her favourite lines of poetry are, she says, from Cascando by Samuel Becket:

Terrified again

Of not loving

Of loving and not you

Of being loved and not by you

Of knowing not knowing pretending


Juanita says that certain world press photography -- "like the image of a Muslim child being laid out delicately at her funeral" -- would have been a much stronger influence on The Door than any particular movies "in terms of style". Among her all-time favourite films are Uzak for "its visual poetry"; Spirited Away for "its sheer imagination and magic"; Underground for "its complete visceral cinematic experience; All About Eve for "its clever script and style"; Picnic at Hanging Rock for "its beautifully crafted and haunting style"; and Husbands and Wives for its "humour and its ability to portray human relationships".

In terms of her own human relationships, Juanita is married to producer James Flynn. They live in Stepaside with their two children Alex, 11, and Anna, 8. Asked how she would cope if one of her children were diagnosed as fatally ill like the child in The Door, she says she can understand how it would be easier for the mother to die than to watch her daughter's life slip away. "I don't know how you would ever, ever recover if you lost one of your children. I really don't."

In terms of the dynamic of being married to someone in the same business, she says of her relationship with James (who produced The Door): "It is good that you're both interested in the same thing."

But you didn't sit up all night discussing camera angles on Battleship Potemkin? "Far from it," she laughs. "It is about getting the balance right. We just muddle though, I guess."

Did your parents ever tell you why they named you Juanita? "My father wanted me to have a name that was different and individual. It doesn't quite go with my surname however! One of my uncles was born in Argentina and was called Juan, so there was a tenuous family connection."

Her father, who was born in Hong Kong and moved back to Ireland when he was 11, was a Latin lecturer in Trinity "but preferred the contact in the classroom and became a secondary school teacher. He was a kind, modest and thoughtful man." He passed away in 2000. Her mother, a physiotherapist, had a stroke a couple of years ago and it is still, she says, "very upsetting. Those are the things you never quite understand or get your head around."

Her mother, she says, should have been a costume designer or sculptor. "She makes the most amazing sculptures of people and animals from paper, wire, cotton wool -- anything she can find. She is an amazingly resourceful, courageous, independent and fun-loving woman." The apple didn't fall far from the tree, of course.

Juanita, who "travels hugely", has spent most of the last year on and off in Macedonia filming a 90-minute movie about the Bosnian war in the early Nineties. She is currently editing As If I'm Not There, which will be out at the end of May.

Based on the book by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, As If I'm Not There tells the story of Samira, a young Bosnian teacher in a Balkan prison camp. "I was always, obviously, interested in the Bosnian war and horrified, living in Dublin," Juanita says. "I was in Blackrock one day and this book literally fell into my hands. I read it in one go. It really made me cry. It is beautifully written, very sparse. It doesn't tell you how to feel in any way.

"It describes in the first person an experience of war. I persuaded Slavenka to trust us and we bought the rights 10 years ago at least. It is the human story told through one person's experience that I think is true. It is very, very moving. I suppose I always felt: 'How would I feel to be in that situation?' The book certainly lets you understand that a little bit and hopefully the film will too. The movie is about somebody who is a victim of rape as a war crime."

How would winning the Oscar tonight for The Door change her career? "If it meant I could knock on a half-open door next time I try to make a film, that would be great."

Asked if she did win the Oscar, would she leave Stepaside to move to America, she replies: "I would work anywhere in the world, wherever the story takes me, but I will always come home to Ireland."

Who would play Juanita in the movie of her life and what kind of movie would it be? "Bill Murray -- and it would be a comedy." Frankly, I couldn't care less who would play her once Juanita Wilson wins the Oscar later tonight.

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