Throughout the history of art there have been a few serendipitous moments where everything aligns perfectly to make space for a new conversation. ‘Viva,’ an Irish film directed by Paddy Breathnach and written by Mark O’Halloran, is an example of this new moment in time. Telling the story of a young Cuban hairdresser who comes out to his estranged father as a drag performer, the film is a relevant reflection of contemporary life, where socio-political issues like LGBTQ rights, visibility, and equality, as well as a new chapter in the history of Cuban foreign relations, are prevalent and significant topics of conversation. Ahead of the U.S. release (out on April 29th, 2016), Breathnach chatted with us over the phone to discuss the vibrancy of Cuba, the essence of humanity, and the power of making a political stance by avoiding a political agenda.
NeueJournal: What initially drove you to explore ‘Viva’’s subject matter?
Paddy Breathnach: On holiday I had gone to Cienfuegos, Cuba and seen a drag show. The raw emotional power of the performances captured something in my imagination, so I became interested in trying to show something of that world. I was interested that through this artifice they were able to get to some really deep emotional and truthful experience. As I began to go back over the years I looked at other performances and began to think of an idea of a father-son story set in that world. I did a little bit of work on that and then I went to an Irish writer, called Mark O’Halloran, who turned it upside and inside out. We began to explore the world together a bit, and these themes began to come out; the theme of finding your voice and identity and the themes of what the nature of male power and masculine power are. Once I began to get the idea of the father-son relationship I became interested in the idea and the image of a son almost serenading his father in the voice of his mother’s musical interests and channeling his parental love in some way into his performance.
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NJ: You’re exploring so many themes that are so pertinent to contemporary society. What do you want the takeaway to be for the viewer?
PB: The idea that through artifice we can transcend our space and where we are in a reality, and reach a deeper understanding of ourselves and deeper expression of ourselves. It’s something that’s very interesting to me and definitely something I want to tell…the possibilities to change and move on, but maintaining the integrity of where you’ve come from and who you essentially are. To be in motion and movement, but yet to have a sense of origin about you as well.
NJ: This is a theme that’s very prevalent…gender, the construction of it, and how it assumes so many different forms than what we were used to accepting. Do you think that ‘Viva’ is trying to speak to an audience that might not be attuned to that reality yet?
PB: I think the film does speak to that audience. I’m not a campaigner, so if i’m political or there’s politics in anything I do, it’s definitely with a small ‘p.’ But the idea of just accepting the reality of that world, and telling a story in that world, and looking for the common humanity in that world, allows people to experience it and might change their minds and will allow them a language to be able to move on. Most people don’t think they’re bad people or that they’re misguided; they don’t do it out of malice. So what way can you find a path to allow things to move on? I think in watching the film, the character is who he is. It’s just a fact with his life. We’re not trying to justify that or explain that or contextualize that. It’s just a factor of the story. I think it’s a more powerful way of doing it than a campaigning piece.
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NJ: How was it different to film in Cuba than in other locations you’ve filmed before?
PB: The place itself is so vibrant and full of life. I decided, partially because of practical reasons, and budget reasons, and also for aesthetic reasons, to try and shoot in a very naturalistic way that allowed us to capture as much of that vibrancy on the street as possible. We didn’t try and sanitize the sound by cleaning up all the tracks, or stop traffic outside the window so the motorbike doesn’t go past. It’s not a place where you can just go down the road and buy a wig, or buy new makeup, or buy materials very easily, or even go to a coffee shop and buy coffee easily. It’s limited what you can get there. For certain types of films it can be a real difficulty and frustration, but for us it was a limitation that actually allowed a particular type of aesthetic to unfold, and gave it a coherency.
People there are very welcoming as well. They want the world to know them and they want to know the world. You’re not dealing with an unsophisticated people. You’re dealing with a very clever, smart, people who are hungry to learn and hungry to show themselves. It’s a very interesting, wonderful place. It’s not without it’s problems, but it has a huge amount going for it.
NJ: What is the first film you remember having a deep impact on you?
PB: A Matter of Life and Death, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I think it may have been called Stairway to Heaven in America. I came home and I watched it on television one afternoon and got captivated by it. It wasn’t the type of film I imagined I would be captivated by, but I was. It had ideas in it that intrigued me and it was very visually impressive and vibrant, but it wasn’t conventional. I was probably about 16 at the time.
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NJ: If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be?
PB: A health and safety officer. I have a bad habit of seeking out danger and pitfalls and trying to fix them before they become a problem. It’s a sort of slightly anal pursuit that doesn’t reflect well on my character. But yeah, health and safety officer.
NJ: That’s interesting…
PB: No, I wouldn’t have been, but I think I have an aptitude for it. I’m not sure what I would have done actually. I’ve been doing film for so long, I don’t know what I would do. I think I probably would be making something of some sort. When I discovered what it’s like to make something and complete something, that sort of structure became very embedded in me.
NJ: I believe that creating is kind of the essence of humans.
PB: It is. We’re meaning machines. We seek out meaning and we try and give meaning.
NJ: Say you win the lottery right now. What’s the first thing you would do with the money?
PB: Pay off debts. My own debts and my family’s debts. I’d still want to make films and I want to work. I like working. I like doing that. Hopefully I’d win enough, but not so much that it became a ridiculous problem in some way…just enough to buy myself a little bit of freedom. If somebody finds what I’m saying admirable and they’re willing to share just a little bit of their fortune with me they’re welcome to do that (laughs).
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NJ: What’s your favorite smell?
PB: My daughter’s hair. She’s only two.
NJ: If you could work with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
PB: Gregory Peck. He had such dignity about him and kind of decency. I don’t know if he was that in his own life, but I got the impression he was.
NJ: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
PB: I avoid karaoke like the plague. But, if I had to do a song, my best rendition at the moment is a song called ‘Horsey Horsey Don’t You Stop,’ which I sing every night to put my daughter to sleep. That’s my best performance.
NJ: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
PB: I suppose my idea of perfect happiness is trying to get there and moving towards it in some way. I suppose it’s a paradox. It’s relative happiness on the way to perfect happiness. You need a bit of danger. If there isn’t a little bit of danger or tension, then I don’t know whether the other thing can sustain itself. You always need a touch of that alongside. If everything is too good, you don’t feel alive.
Portrait Photography: Daniel Savage for NeueJournal