‘Viva’ director tackles authenticity, LGBT culture on big screen

Shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award this year, “Viva” has been making noise since its debut at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival. In it, young Jesus (Hector Medina), who does make-up for a drag troupe in Havana, dreams of one day performing himself. However, when his father Angel (Jorge Perugorria) makes a dramatic entrance back into his life those plans derail. Director Paddy Breathnach has made his previous films in his native Ireland but shot this one in Cuba. We spoke with him recently about his journey to bring “Viva” to the screen (along with gay writer Mark O’Halloran) and make it authentic.

What made you want to make this film?

It goes back a long way. I had been on holidays to Cuba and by accident came across a drag show in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. I was very taken by a moment where a performer came onstage and gave a strong, emotionally evocative performance. We had spoken to a few women before in the audience and one was crying. I asked her why and she said “that is my brother and the only time he is happy is when he is onstage.” I didn’t know much about that world at all and I said

I wanted to look into it more. I went back to Cuba again and saw some acts. What struck me was the level of improvisation and creation that (the performers) use to transform.

How long did it take to make it?

My first trip was in 1996. We really didn’t start working on this until 2007. Before that it was an idea.

How is Cuba as an LGBT-friendly country?

It began to change officially over the last 10 years and more concretely with the involvement of Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro and niece of Fidel. She had an interest in gender studies and officially pushed the regime for change. Fidel himself had said treatment of gays in Cuba had not been right and they wanted to change that. I think on the streets things have gotten easier but I don’t think that culture changes overnight. It takes awhile. It’s not all rosy in the garden.

Tell us about Jesus.

Jesus is a person who has not found his voice in life. He is kind of meek. He sees in this world of drag artists a chance to show his power and strength. In many ways that is one of the themes of the fi lm. What seems like weakness turns out to be strength. Femininity in men traditionally has been seen to be a weakness but it can be a strength. He is used a bit at the start of the film, but when his father returns and tries to dominate him and place him in a context he understands, he resists that.

How hard is it to forgive his father?

His desire to reconnect with his father is greater than his desire to not forgive him. It seems to be his nature. He is able to get his father to see the light, and express his love for his son.

 How did you make the drag scenes so authentic?

I was very concerned with trying to capture that world and represent it truthfully. Some of the performers are from drag shows. For the actors that I cast in the roles, I put a lot of emphasis on the auditions and the rehearsals. The actors really needed to put a lot into it.

Opens May 20
Midtown Art Cinema