Power Beyond Words

Héctor Medina in Paddy Breathnach’s “Viva.” | MAGNOLIA PICTURES

Héctor Medina in Paddy Breathnach’s “Viva.” | MAGNOLIA PICTURES

BY GARY M. KRAMER | Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach’s crowd-pleasing “Viva” is set in the world of Cuban drag queens. Jesús (Héctor Medina) is a hairdresser who works for Mama (Luis Alberto García), a performer at a local bar. One night at the club, Jesús unexpectedly reunites with his long-lost father, Angel (Jorge Perugorría), a former boxer now out of jail and harboring a secret. Father and son try to find a common ground, but Angel is not too keen to have a son who is a “maricón,” while Jesús is determined to work as a performer for Mama. Breathnach brings considerable insight and detail to his characters’ struggles for acceptance and understanding.

Paddy Breathnach’s “Viva” plumbs the transformative force in Cuban drag

Breathnach spoke with Gay City News about making his heartfelt film.

GARY M. KRAMER: What prompted you, an Irishman, to make a film about a gay Cuban drag queen?

PADDY BREATHNACH: I came up with the idea and did the outline, and went to Mark O’Halloran, who’s gay, to write it. I went to Cuba in the 1990s and saw a drag show in the middle of nowhere on the far side of the island. It struck me quickly that the performances had this raw, emotional, authentic, bare quality to them, that wasn’t in any other drag performance I’d seen. It immediately impressed on me that that was something I wanted to see more of. Before the show, a woman next to me was crying and I asked her why, and she said it was her brother and this was the only time he was happy.

GMK: How did you immerse yourself in the Cuban and drag queen cultures?

PB: We made contact with a guide in the drag world. We’d get in touch and hear about a show, and then another show… It was all clandestine discovery. It was more underground then than it is now. It was in a run-down, working class Havana suburb, in someone’s backyard, basically. They put up a red sheet and one spotlight and there was a transformative power in that — a realm of dreams and the realm of the possible. The intense quality and power of the songs struck me as something very interesting and so rare. To make something transformative out of so little — that was a remarkable thing. It’s the need to do it; it’s more intense. It’s about finding your voice.

GMK: Had the lead actors performed in drag prior to making “Viva?”

PB: Neither of the two leads, Héctor and Luis Alberto, had done drag performances before. I knew casting Jesús would be a discovery and he would have to learn drag, but it is part of the character to do that, so I wasn’t concerned. For Mama, I was concerned. I’d seen performers like Mama, and having seen raw emotional quality I was nervous about an actor learning that art and doing it so quickly. I was going to test a non-actor, but in the auditions I couldn’t find that, but I worked with a casting director and found Luis Alberto García and he showed me he could touch that emotion. I was able to show him the performance I wanted, and he got it very quickly.

GMK: You deliberately chose not to subtitle the songs, letting the emotions speak for the characters. Can you discuss this decision?

PB: It’s a difficult decision. The lyrics are fantastic — particularly in the final song. They are evocative and have meaning. But as soon as you start reading, you are no longer engaged in the visceral experience of seeing someone on stage. I think it takes you out of the experience. I wanted those scenes to overtake viewers with their emotional power in a direct, primal way. That’s when film works best, and I wanted to preserve that.

GMK: Jesús is a character who comes of age over the course of “Viva.” Can you talk about how he adapts to the mother and father characters of Mama and Angel?

PB: There’s a selflessness in Jesús. I suppose one of the great things is that while it can be seen as a weakness, Jesús turns it into his power. He can be true to himself and enable others to find the truth in themselves. Not only does he make his own transformation, but others find themselves as well. Suddenly he has an opportunity to have a father — and he wants to preserve that — but he does it on his own terms. For Angel, he wants to love his son but doesn’t know how to do or express that. Mama cares for him, and yet Jesús is wary of her help.

GMK: There is considerable emphasis placed on the economic hardship of the characters. Jesús turns to prostitution at one point. Can you address that element?

PB: There’s a truth in Cuba that you are always very close to poverty and falling into prostitution, so the degree of self-interest comes into that situation, but there’s also a sense of solidarity. “None of us are savages yet,” says one character, who can’t pay Jesús for a haircut or pays him with food. In the hard moments, they rally and support. More individuals go into prostitution to earn money for survival. These are not heroin addicts doing it to feed the habit. It’s about getting some luxury goods. They can buy food, but not buy luxuries, so prostitution has been a very present and real thing in Cuba.

GK: What observations do you have on the themes of shame, acceptance, and tolerance in the film?

PB: Jesús is sort of disempowered at moments in the film — going along with his father, or having to prostitute himself — but these moments all direct him toward something. He’s not subjugated by his shame. He’s bearing terrible things and doing things that may destroy him, but you still feel his inner goodness is present. It’s through his performance he can find more fundamental, greater, and deeper truth and fulfillment.

VIVA | Directed by Paddy Breathnach | Magnolia Pictures | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Apr. 29 | Angelika Film Center, 18 Houston St. at Mercer St., angelikafilmcenter.org