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Desert Companion

Profile: Nikki Corda, Family Documentarian

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Nikki Corda
Photography by Lucky Wenzel

In the Facebook and Instagram era, it is easy to imagine that our most precious memories are saved and easily available, to be relived as often as we want. But, as you know from that cousin who posts too many photos of her children, more memories does not mean better or more treasured ones.

In 2006, documentary filmmaker Nikki Corda found herself wondering how she could truly treasure the memories of her father, musician and songwriter Mike Corda. She had returned to Las Vegas from Southern California to spend more time with her family in the wake of her father’s illness. With six years of experience in the film industry and a documentary to her credit, Corda put her skills into a labor of love — a short film about her father’s life.

“(My father) and my mother and my older sisters came here during the Rat Pack era, and he had so many interesting stories,” she says. “I had a lot of emotion about that because my father never got the hit song that he desired, he never got the acknowledgment that he dreamed of.”

Deeply personal, the project was meant primarily for her family, and yet it quickly assumed a life of its own. Friends were immediately taken by the idea, and many asked, Could you do one about my dad, too?

Life-Portraits was born.

The business, which she officially began in 2014 (although she’d been working with clients since 2007), taps into a “universal urge to hold onto our loved ones and learn as much about them while we can.” Corda takes an unscripted approach; the editing process incorporates home videos and photographs to create something that can be passed down to the next generation.

One of her personal favorites is that of Chicago landlord Morrie Liebling. “When I interviewed (him), the first question I asked was, ‘What has been your life’s work?’ This was meant to be a segue to allow him to reflect on his career. Instead, he internalized the question at a very deep level, and it brought him to tears. Eventually he stated, ‘My life’s work has been taking care of my family.’

“This cracked him right open,” she says, “and he was very emotionally open throughout the interview, which was wonderful. Although this was my first question, I chose to end the documentary with this moment, and it was a beautiful conclusion.”

After her father died and her mother moved into an assisted-living facility, Corda began to interview her mother’s fellow residents, many of them World War II veterans. “(Older people) are ignored so often, especially when they get really old and they can’t keep up, can’t hear,” she says. “We just stop talking to them.”

As Corda developed Life-Portraits, she explored other documentary projects. In 2013, she and a few friends began working on a documentary about the mortgage crisis in Las Vegas. She met Ian Hirsch of Fortress Credit Services, who worked on mortgage modification at a time when Las Vegas was facing a tsunami of foreclosures. 

“(Hirsch) would save people from losing their homes, and I really gravitated to the idea of what he was doing,” Corda says. “As a little burgeoning production project for me, I started making short films for Ian for his business, and they were all mini stories about how he’d saved different clients from losing their homes.”

That gave rise to Docu-Mercials, the sister project of Life-Portraits: short, documentary-style videos designed with an advertising purpose in mind, made for clients doing people-centered work.

In many ways, Docu-Mercials and Life-Portraits are products of the same philosophy. In both, subjects open up and share their life’s work and the things that have helped shape who they are. And while some of Corda’s clients are people whose work is part of the Las Vegas landscape — she’s working on Life-Portraits for entertainment photojournalist and performer Richard Faverty, and aerialist and circus performer Stephanie Castellone — most are ordinary folks.

“Everyone has their own unique tale of getting through this thing called life,” Corda explains. “It’s part of the human condition to have a story.”

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