My grandma was very defiant in her resistance.

Written by Pieter-Bas van Wiechen

Filmmaker Camila José Donoso’s grandmother is the central figure in Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them. The fiction film is based on her turbulent life. “Grandma was herself, but when she heard the word ‘action' she started acting.”

If Latin American women have a reputation as being indomitable characters, then Josefina Ramírez is that to the nth degree. “My grandmother lived through and resisted Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile”, explains filmmaker Camila José Donoso. “She was a lot more defiant than other women. She regularly erected barricades or barricados, lighting them with Molotov cocktails. Her relationship with weapons in particular is extremely odd.”

Josefina had an awful lot of fun during the dictatorship.” – Camila José Donoso

Donoso’s grandmother had an eventful life, though she wasn’t one of the regime’s victims. She has a complex relationship with that era. “Josefina always emphasises that she had an awful lot of fun. She was attracted to excitement, because life was so boring under the dictatorship.”

Such a strong character with such an eventful history makes a wonderful starting point for a film. However, Donoso not only used her grandmother for inspiration: she also played the lead. “I love working with self-trained actors. When I was studying I already knew I wanted to do something with my grandmother. We first shot a short film with her which was successful and made us hungry for more.” Although her granny quite literally played the role of a lifetime, Donoso wants to emphasise that this isn’t a documentary: “Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them is not a portrait of my grandmother, to me it’s fiction.”

Her relationship with weapons in particular is extremely odd.” – Camila José Donoso

Many of the scenes were shot at Josefina’s home. Directing someone that strong willed in their own domain was quite a challenge. “Sometimes there seemed to be some role reversal at play,” says Donoso. “Josefina directing and me acting. It was almost impossible for her to take orders and she had a completely different idea of how we should work. Luckily she was able to learn during the project so things became easier as time passed.”

Unscripted Film

Nona. If They Soak Me, I’ll Burn Them was also a learning process for Donoso and her producer that gradually took shape. The two started the film without a budget. Funds were generated whilst shooting was underway, not an easy thing to do as Donoso works without a script. The Chilean director allows her films to develop during shooting. “You shoot a few

scenes, edit them, then shoot some more”, explains the filmmaker.

After a series of small contributions, Donoso and her producer managed to get more substantial funding in 2017. This came as quite a shock as Donoso’s previous two films Naomi Campbel (2013) and Casa Roshell (2017) were made without any budget to speak of. Making a film on funding had to be learnt too. Laughing: “Suddenly we had to consider who we wanted to work with to make the film.”

The new situation also took some getting used to for Donoso’s grandmother. Out of the blue, instead of two, there were dozens of people in her home. “Initially, it annoyed her”, says Donoso. However, Josefina had faced bigger challenges in her life. “Ultimately, she changed her mind. It was like instantaneously gaining a whole bunch of grandchildren.”

Photo in header: Camila José Donoso