Viva was written in Spanish about Cuban drag artists, but looks like being one of the best Irish films of the year, writes Esther McCarthy
THE beating pulse and energy of Havana is evident in every scene of Viva, an emotional tale of love and family binds set in Cuba’s flamboyant and colourful drag scene.
Its characters speak Spanish and dance to a Latin beat, but Viva is a movie as Irish as it’s Cuban.
Written by Mark O’Halloran (Adam and Paul) and directed by Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down), the film came to life after Breathnach happened across a drag club while on holidays, and felt the scene could form a special backdrop to a story.
“The genesis of it goes back a good way, and was driven for me by seeing some drag artists doing those performances,” says Breathnach. “You’ve got these songs which are incredibly raw, emotionally plaintive, sung by women in their 40s or 50s, and then reinterpreted by these drag artists, with that sense of desire to transform, to become, to express.
“I just fell in love with that initially. I was in Cuba, we were staying in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and there happened to be a drag show in that hotel. We talked to the performers and the next night took some photos of them when they were getting ready for the show.”
That initial visit marked the beginning of a love affair with Cuba, which was shared by O’Halloran when the two men crossed paths. “I saw Adam & Paul and loved it, met Mark at the Berlin Film Festival, and we got talking. We went to Cuba together in 2007 to do a research trip.”
O’Halloran subsequently went for an extended stay before starting work on the script in 2010. “We never lost faith in it, but it wasn’t catching traction with funders immediately,” adds O’Halloran. “We kept at it and kept honing it, it allowed us a greater amount of time. I think that time enriched it in some way.”
Viva comes to Irish cinemas on the back of a hugely successful festival run and international acclaim that saw it very narrowly miss out on a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination for Ireland. The film, nominated as the Irish entry in the category this year, was one of nine shortlisted but missed out on the final five.
It tells the story of Jesus (a terrific Hector Medina), who finds freedom of expression in the drag scene while working as a hairdresser in Havana. But when his estranged, troubled and brutish father (Jorge Perugorria) arrives back into his life, Jesus becomes torn between his sense of identity and family. It’s a simple idea that swells into an emotional powerhouse, and represented a new challenge for writer O’Halloran.
“My Spanish is getting better, I’ve studied, but at the time I didn’t have any. It was written in English, with an eye towards translation,” he explains. “You try and understand the way they speak. You’re not trying to make it overly vernacular, although I would use vernacular Irish sayings at times, to make sure when it was translated they didn’t do a direct translation. So you’d use phrases like: ‘She’s off washing her box’ which is a very Irish phrase! What you want to know is, a guy like that, in Havana, what would he say?
“It’s not just the words, the thoughts are important, or the emotional geography of what’s going on in the scene.”
The option of making the film in the English language was discussed, but as far as Breathnach was concerned, it was never a serious option. “There was a film, Before Night Falls, about Cuba, and it was done in English. I looked at that, and it was a question that came up once or twice. But somehow, the way we wanted to approach it, with a certain naturalism, instinctively meant that I wanted to do it in Spanish.”
During the casting process, the team were fortunate enough to secure the interest of one of Cuba’s best known and loved actors, Jorge Perugorria, to play the film’s patriarch.
“I’d seen him in other films. Luckily he agreed. I was really nervous that day — you have to convince somebody to be in a film, but also you’re saying: ‘Well, I’m a foreigner and my Spanish is only ok…’ — there are so many levels that you have to convince them on.
“You’re asking not only if they will be in the film, but will they trust you as a guardian of their culture.”
Though they say that it can be impossible to know for sure, both men felt at an early stage of filming that they were on to something special. “Each evening we’d get together and look at the rushes that were coming in, and even from the first day they looked amazing,” says O’Halloran. “But you can never tell that’s going to come together as something. I think the edit process was very long with this. I think it came together slowly, but there was always a feeling that yes, the raw material is there, if we can just stay focused on it.”
For Breathnach, getting excited about the first scenes represented certain dangers.“There’s almost a dichotomy or a paradox that you carry along with you. It’s a low-budget film, and you’re doing it with a conviction, and that conviction is that it’s really special, that you know, deep down, that there’s something in this, that you really want to hold on to and ride through the whole way to the end.
“But at the same time when you’re filming, if you begin to think that, a certain tension disappears very quickly. I knew myself from previous things that as soon as you start rubbing your tummy and thinking: ‘It’s great’, something disappears. Your demeanour the next day has changed. It’s like you’re saying: ‘That’s good, forget about it’.”
For O’Halloran, the ultimate test was whether the film would resonate with Cuban audiences, who tend to be both very well versed in cinema and direct in their opinion.
His first screening of the film with an audience was at the Havana Film Festival in the city’s historic Yara cinema, which seats 2,000 people. So no pressure, then?
He laughs at the memory. “I was very nervous. I’d gone to see Carol the night before, which the audience just reacted really badly to. I thought: ‘We are going to be savaged!’
“We got there and I sat there, and actually I didn’t watch the film. I just sat looking at the audience and listening to them and it was an overpowering reaction, actually. They were very emotional, the laughs were huge, they got all the jokes, these were actors that they knew. It was a very special night.
“There was a crowd outside the cinema, queueing in the rain, and they just spontaneously decided to put it on again and show it to them. That’s Cuba.”
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