By Hans Pedersen, May 2016 Issue.
“Find your voice” is the tagline on the poster for Viva – and it’s a message that resonates strongly for director Paddy Breathnach. “This film let me rediscover my own voice as an artist and a filmmaker,” he said, adding that he feels a strong connection to the project.
But how does a straight Irish filmmaker wind up making a movie about cross-dressers in Havana, Cuba?
“I went to a drag show in ’96,” explained Breathnach in an interview with Echo at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. “It captured my imagination.”
Breathnach added that he had never seen such passion in a drag show before.
“I was transported in a way…” he continued, describing how he was unexpectedly moved and impressed by the way a red sheet and a single light could transform a performance space.
“People can transport themselves and have hopes and ideas of something else, and yet it’s made of nothing,” he said. “It’s a bit of a sheet and a light.”
Wanting to capture this world, he eventually crafted a father-son relationship that became central to this story of an up-and-coming female impersonator in Cuba.
According to Breathnach, screenwriter Mark O’Halloran enhanced the script, and the two collaborated to explore this new locale in what the director describes as an enriching learning experience.
“Both of us had a sensitivity going into that world,” he said, adding that although they were outsiders, they did not want to approach the story from an outsider’s perspective or make Cuba appear exotic.
“Being Irish, you know, we’re an island, we’re used to traveling and going other places … and finding stories someplace else,” he said.
Because the Irish are accustomed to folks coming to their island and telling their stories, Breathnach said, the citizens of the two countries found a kinship. The Cuban community and Irish film crew established mutual trust and worked together in good faith.
“For us to go over there, there’s a sensitivity and a sense of responsibility, let’s say, and also a sense of danger of the minefields there,” he said of the shoot. “So we were very conscious of going into that world and needing to be very careful of how we navigated that.”
The possibilities for self-transformation in a whole new world are evident in the movie’s themes, and even in the color choices that were made during the shoot. A bright gown and some red lipstick might be the only source of color in a scene set in a drab gray room.
“There’s a lot of decay there. It’s great for filming, so it gives a patina to everything,” Breathnach elucidated. “On top of the colors there’s dust and years of decay and it makes an even palette …”
Breathnach felt it was important to offset the script’s darker elements – poverty, prostitution and death – with those colorful aspects of the drag world.
“I knew the theatricality and the vibrancy and color and exuberance of that world would translate some of those other elements, and allow us to really get rich and strong emotions …” Breathnach said.
Additionally, he believes the songs help draw those darker emotional elements out of the decaying settings. But it’s ultimately Jesus’ struggle with his father, who’s recently out of a long stint in jail, that is the emotional core of the movie.
“I think [he’s] a young man trying to find his own voice, his own individual identity but recognizes that he has to reconcile that individual identity with … his family…” the director mused.
As for the storyline, the young man must ultimately choose between two worlds – his biological father or his makeshift family of female impersonators.
“There’s a moment when he raises his hand with a glove and stands back up again, he throws himself to the ground and sort of resurrects, and at that stage he’s the master of two worlds,” the director explained.
It’s just one of several gut-wrenching scenes in the movie, which Breathnach describes as a melodrama that’s “emotional without being sentimental.”
When Breathnach discovered actor Héctor Medina, he felt the young man with raw talent was perfect to play Jesus.
“To cast anyone else after that would have been an aberration. He’s a wonderful actor and a wonderful person,” Breathnach said of the straight actor, who came from a community about an hour outside Havana.
Powered by a common bond between islanders, the collaborative project between Cuban actors and an Irish film crew demonstrates the magical power of transformation to create a new place for oneself.
“That power we have to transform ourselves through ephemera, through a certain alchemy and art …” the director said of the film’s message of reinvention. “We can transform and transcend our realities and allow ourselves to become something else and change our narratives. We can move on, you can move on.”
Female impersonators have a special magic all their own, and that ineffable quality shines brightly in the tearjerker Viva.
Shot in Cuba by Irish director Paddy Breathnach, this selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival features a star-making performance by actor Héctor Medina.
Medina plays Jesus, a young hairdresser at a nightclub for female impersonators in Havana. He yearns to take the stage himself and begs the head of the club, Mama (Luis Alberto García), to give him a chance in the spotlight.
When Mama relents, Jesus dons a wig and makeup and anoints himself Viva – but the initial transformation turns out to be unremarkable. Unable to emote on stage, Jesus is unable to fully inhabit the new persona he has tried to create.
"He doesn't even know how to tuck," remarks one of the other gals from backstage while Viva muddles her way through. Mama tells him he's not making the grade, but gives the handsome young hairdresser another shot on-stage.
While trying to improve his style and his lip-synching in the limelight, Jesus is suddenly assaulted by a member of the audience. Turns out the man who erupted in anger is actually his father, who has been incarcerated for fifteen years. Jesus’ life is turned upside-down by this ghost from the past.
His father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), is a former boxer who demands that his son stop working in the nightclub. Angel even makes himself comfortable in Jesus’ home and starts bullying his son around.
But the young man continues to work onstage, unbeknownst to his father, trying to improve his skills as a performer.
As past and present reunite, it's only a matter of time before Angel learns that Jesus continues to be Viva onstage. But the aging boxer has problems of his own that ultimately impact Jesus' decision whether to stay with his father, or to venture out on his own with a little help from Mama.
Jesus is caught between two parent figures -- his own father and a maternal figure, Mama; one is abusive while the other supports his dreams. While at first the father-son conflict may seem like familiar territory we’ve seen in other films, the characters’ struggles turn out to be more complex and nuanced as their relationship unfolds.
Shot on location in Havana, Breathnach allows a drab palette of greys and earth tones to dominate much of the frame composition -- except for the female impersonators' costumes. Their bright fabrics and red lipstick are the dominant sources of color in the entire movie, reinforcing in visual terms how cross-dressing is a vibrant source of power for the characters.
Helping to showcase the value of transformation is a cast of Cuban drag performers, many of whom have struggled in the country during a less tolerant era. Some spent time in prison, and faced their own individual struggles over the years, but now they utilize this chance to demonstrate their talents as actors and performances.
Ultimately the film's musical sequences in the club are the backbone of this character-driven story. Plaintive, heartfelt performances across the board all contribute to an ending that may leave you in tears.
With a breakout performance by Medina, Viva packs a powerful punch by the film’s climax.