Omar Zúñiga is an Audiovisual Director and B.A. in Aesthetics from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and also holds an M.F.A. from the Graduate Film Program at New York University, which he attended with scholarships from the Fulbright Program, Chile’s Ministry of Education and Tisch School of the Arts.
He directed Academy Award® nominee James Franco and Zach Braff in a segment of the film The Color of Time. He premiered his short San Cristóbal at the Berlinale in 2015, where it won Teddy Award for the Best Short Film.
His first feature, The Strong Ones, received both the Grand Jury Prize for Best International Narrative and the Audience Award at OutFest Los Angeles 2020.
What was the starting point for The Strong Ones?
I started writing in 2014. At that moment, I was living in the United States. I had directed various projects in English, and at that moment I strongly felt the need to make something that was much closer to my life experiences, to the culture I know, to the kinds of characters and lives that I wanted to represent. I wanted to tell a love story that was romantic and genuine, honest with the things that I know and that I have seen around me.
I also wanted to make a film that was current and political, in which these two men will not let themselves be pushed over by any hostility they may find around them, in which they are able to fight for their place in the world, for the dignity that they define for themselves. This hostility does not define them, their humanity does. The ways that they are different from each other, the ways in which they both try to get to another stage of their adulthood. For me, the film is a romance and also a coming of age, in which they both take risks, and in which they take steps to their own independence.
Films working on same sex relationships sometimes do it from the violence, the discrimination, the pain. What motivated you to take it from love? What difference does The Strong Ones have with other romantic films?
In a very deliberate way, when we had the chance to make this film, we wanted to focus our resources, our talents, our light, in telling a story that celebrated this love and the bravery these two characters have in front of the world, in a way that I have not seen enough of. Homophobia exists in Chile; it is brutal and painful. There are macabre attacks periodically, and there is still a social dimension to it as well. However, our focus is not on this violence, and in my opinion, the film presents in a plausible and realistic way the different reactions that they face around them: sometimes clumsy rejection, sometimes unconditional support, sometimes the town’s anonymous hostility. I feel that this is honest with our country in this moment in time and with the experiences that I know.
I also wanted to talk about a love that had no reservations. It is not a story of discovery, it is a love story that does not involve the idea of guilt, the idea of what they are doing is wrong. It does not cease to surprise me how many films that revolve around same sex relationships fall time and time again in the pattern of one the participants thinking or feeling that what they are going through is something that must be hidden. Even films that are received by mainstream audiences. This is ethically foul for me, and we wanted to remove ourselves from that. I wanted to celebrate their freedom, their autonomy, the courage they have when they allow themselves to be vulnerable with one another.
Finally, I also think that we are unconsciously trained by narrative conventions to expect epic narratives about love, where people leave everything behind for it. I wanted to tell a different story in this sense, more adult, closer to life, with a love that has other ways of being epic.
How was the casting process?
When I started writing the film I wanted to work with Antonio Altamirano: we had met years prior because we had made our first short film together, me as a director and him as an actor. There is a feeling of resilience and strength in Antonio the character, who is very clear with what he thinks, with defending his way of looking at the world. I am not sure why exactly, but I was confident that Antonio could bring this to the screen.
For the other character, Lucas, I was not so sure. It is a more mysterious character, who leaves some of his own shortcomings behind during the film. A common friend introduced me to Samuel González, and when we met, we connected very quickly, we talked about many things beyond the story in particular. We realized that in many ways, the film was as personal to him as it was to me, with experiences that we had both lived. I was very interested in that, and it made us trust each other profoundly.
We did not do formal auditions. For me, it was about the person behind the actor: the experiences that shape us as human beings, the things we have lived or the things we think about the world. I believe that inevitably that makes it to the screen somehow. With Marcela Salinas and Rafael Contreras, it was a similar process, and also with other actors that are featured.
Why did you choose the south of Chile as the context?
From the beginning I wanted the film to have that atmosphere, defined by the immensity of the ocean, and the omnipresence of the rain, the water and the forests. In the Corral Bay in particular there is also a system of Spanish forts that were key in the conquest period, and that centuries later were a part of the independentist movement. These buildings have been standing for centuries, resisting the waves crashing against them. I see them as a vestige of resilience, and in way this echoes the relationship between Lucas and Antonio, who have to resist other kinds of waves.
Also, I was interested in a very specific culture: the local fishing, marked by the dignity of the trade, by the stoicism and the fortitude, by the pride that a community has for the life it leads. This is embodied by Antonio, who defends his side of the river, his way of looking at the world, the life he chooses to carry. I think that sometimes there is a paternalistic view of the trades, or of the hostility: if you find it, change the life you have. I wanted to defend a different notion, conscious of dignity, conscious that all of us deserve to live the life we want in the place where our affections exist.
I spent a lot of time in the area in different occasions before the shooting, observing, visiting places and getting to know people. I wanted to make a portrait that felt authentic. I believe that the process previous to filming, which was years, was key for that.