Cuba

2 Stories


Paddy Breathnach

'Viva' & the Vibrancy of Cuba

NeueJournal-PB2

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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‘Viva’ Film Still

 

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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‘Viva’ Film Still

 

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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‘Viva’ Film Still

 

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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‘Viva’ Film Still

 

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

Cuba: Where to Go Next

The Other Side of Paradise

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With the recent historic ease in travel restrictions for Americans and warming of diplomatic relations like a perfectly chilled mojito in the sun, now is the time to go to Cuba, an island that has captivated our imaginations  — and remained an ever-elusive line on our bucket lists — for years. But what really has changed? How can we get there and what should we see and do?

 

To answer these questions, I e-mailed former classmate and friend of mine, Julia Cooke, author of one of the best new books on Cuba, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, and her Brooklyn/Havana–based friend Hannah Berkeley Cohen, whose website Cuba Rising exists to promote “two unrelated facets of the same obsession with Cuba”: travel consulting – she leads custom tours to Cuba ranging from LGBT life to real estate – and photography, mostly of Cuban youth. Collectively, these two young women have been traveling to Cuba for over 17 years – and thus, I knew, must have the secrets any savvy, cosmopolitan traveller would pine for before their first trip to this soulful, communist enclave 90 miles south of the US.

 

Erin Levi: What should we expect when we go to Cuba?

 

Julia Cooke: Exuberance, spontaneity, creativity, sass, in every way: people move through the city in unexpected ways, solve problems with astounding creativity, and there’s a vitality to the arts these days that is really exciting. It’s an unpredictable time, which is exciting.

 

Hannah Berkeley Cohen: The familiar rhetoric of the Cuban neurosurgeon, who, on his nights off, transforms into a taxi driver, earning double his monthly salary in one night, is no longer a mystery to the outside world. Tourists come to Cuba wanting to talk with said taxi driver/neurosurgeon, hear his story of struggle and survival, and offer their help. Yet at the end of their ride in his 1952 Chevy, they ask for a photo with him in front of the car, as they are dropped off at a state-run, air-conditioned, marble-staircase-adorned hotel, able to escape any realities that their cab driver returns home to nightly.

 

Cuba is a mind-fuck of ironies and questions leading to dead ends. Tourists come, hoping to discover an unseen, virgin paradise, yet included in the preconceived package they’re yearning to bring home, are photos of crumbling buildings and snapshots of children running shoeless around Central Havana. The more time one spends in this place, the more questions one knows to ask, recognizing all along, of course, that said questions just lead to more ambiguous questions that no Cuban will know the answer to either.

 

Perhaps this is why Cuba has so many estranged lovers. She is the island of mystery, the island of intrigue. At distinct points in her life, she captivated the lust of the Americans, Soviets, and Venezuelans, but no one ever really stuck around to see what happened the morning after.

With the recent historic ease in travel restrictions for Americans and warming of diplomatic relations (thanks, Obama!) like a perfectly chilled mojito in the sun, now is the time to go to Cuba, an island that has captivated our imaginations  -- and remained an ever-elusive line on our bucket lists -- for years. But what really has changed? How can we get there and what should we see and do?     To answer these questions, I e-mailed former classmate and friend of mine, Julia Cooke, author of one of the best new books on Cuba, The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, and her Brooklyn/Havana–based friend Hannah Berkeley Cohen, whose website Cuba Rising exists to promote “two unrelated facets of the same obsession with Cuba”: travel consulting – she leads custom tours to Cuba ranging from LGBT life to real estate – and photography, mostly of Cuban youth. Collectively, these two young women have been traveling to Cuba for over 17 years – and thus, I knew, must have the secrets any savvy, cosmopolitan traveller would pine for before their first (legal) trip to this soulful, communist enclave 90 miles south of the US.     What should we expect when we go to Cuba?  Julia: Exuberance, spontaneity, creativity, sass, in every way: people move through the city in unexpected ways, solve problems with astounding creativity, and there’s a vitality to the arts these days that is really exciting. It’s an unpredictable time, which is exciting.     Hannah: The familiar rhetoric of the Cuban neurosurgeon, who, on his nights off, transforms into a taxi driver, earning double his monthly salary in one night, is no longer a mystery to the outside world. Tourists come to Cuba wanting to talk with said taxi driver/neurosurgeon, hear his story of struggle and survival, and offer their help. Yet at the end of their ride in his 1952 Chevy, they ask for a photo with him in front of the car, as they are dropped off at a state-run, air-conditioned, marble-staircase-adorned hotel, able to escape any realities that their cab driver returns home to nightly.     Cuba is a mind-fuck of ironies and questions leading to dead ends. Tourists come, hoping to discover an unseen, virgin paradise, yet included in the preconceived package they’re yearning to bring home, are photos of crumbling buildings and snapshots of small black children running shoeless around Central Havana. The more time one spends in this place, the more questions one knows to ask, recognizing all along, of course, that said questions just lead to more ambiguous questions that no Cuban will know the answer to either.     Perhaps this is why Cuba has so many estranged lovers. She is the island of mystery, the island of intrigue. At distinct points in her life, she captivated the lust of the Americans, Soviets, and Venezuelans, but no one ever really stuck around to see what happened the morning after.  NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext  How can we get there?  Hannah: There is now one direct flight a week from NYC to HAV, at the low price of just under $900. Americans traveling under a general license can also travel via Tampa or Miami, where combined, there are probably about a dozen flights daily. This is what Cuban-Americans have been doing for years.     Although restrictions have eased, Americans still need a license to travel to Cuba. Can you explain what you offer travelers as a licensed travel consultant?  Hannah: Now […] any American can go under any of the twelve categories that now fall under the guise of the general license (check out the State Deparment’s FAQs re: Cuba). […] The people who travel with me to Cuba get a highly customized, intensive 7-13 days of “ask me anything and we’ll try to find the answer”.  I create and lead all of my tours, [which] are highly customized and small, as in 1-6 people total. […] People who contact me about coming to Cuba already have in mind what they want to focus on [from youth culture to real estate]. It’s up to me to connect them with the people and places that interest them the most, with the end hope that it will lead to a meaningful relationship between Cuban and American.     [Note: as of today this pdf is all jumbled: http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Documents/cuba_faqs_new.pdf]     What is the cost to travel to Cuba? Are there options for budget to big spenders?  Hannah: My trips start at $4800, with travel costs included from Miami. There are options for much bigger spenders, especially if they’re interested in purchasing art, renting a mansion with a pool and 24-hour cooks, etc. The Fund for Reconciliation and Development has some cheaper options, as well as Cuba Educational Travel, though you’ll be traveling with a larger group and your trip won’t be as customized.     Any favorite hotels?  Julia: I often stay in Havana at Casa Lilly. Lilly is warm and knowledgeable, and her style is great, too.  NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext  Hannah: We [Hannah and her travelers] stay in gorgeous homes or high-rise apartments with great ocean views. I avoid hotels as much as possible.     Any up-and-coming areas of Havana or favorite neighborhoods?  Julia: I will be spectacularly unoriginal if I say that I love Vedado — everyone loves central, buzzy Vedado, and I am no exception. But if I could live anywhere, it’d be in Nuevo Vedado, which is a bit more secluded in a hill above Vedado. It’s got a lot of phenomenal examples of tropical modern architecture, including my dream house, which I saw eight years ago on an architecture tour of Havana, wrote about years ago, and have not been able to get out of my head since.  NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext  Cuban cuisine doesn't have the best reputation. Please tell me there’s some good food on the island to be had!  Julia: There are so many amazing restaurants in Havana since the loosened restrictions of the last few years have spurred many hundreds to open. The old ones are La Guarida, La Esperanza, and (new when I lived there, now more of a standby) Atelier. El Cocinero is newer, Ivan Justo, Le Chansonnier, and the patio at La Galeria.     Cuba Absolutely has really good restaurant, bar, and nightlife recommendations in general. They also have a downloadable What's On guide in PDF, which can be downloaded here in the States and consulted while in internet-slim Cuba.     What are some of your favorite spots?  Julia: Patio at Hotel Nacional for coffee/writing; breakfast isn’t as much of a thing in Cuba, so I’d recommend eating at casas; for music or dancing, locals (and I) love the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht, or the Café Jazz Miramar, or whatever club is hot (five years ago, it was El Túnel, which I hear is still good); for tourist/local people watching while dancing, the Casa de la Musica Miramar.     What's your perfect day in Havana?  Julia: A calm morning of writing, preferably outdoors; my old apartment had a patio that I loved to sit on to write, read, and drink coffee in the mornings. Most Cuban apartments and homes (Lilly’s is no exception) have amazing outdoor spaces. Head downtown, see some of the galleries or museums or visit some artist friends’ studios or visit with old friends, a nice lunch of pulpo (octopus) somewhere in there, a dip in one of the saltwater pools at the hotels in Miramar, and then, in the evening, dinner and music or dance or an open mic situation of some sort. There’s always a lot going on at night in Havana, which is lovely.     How is the art scene?  Julia: For art, try Factoría Habana or the Servando Galería de Arte. The National Museum of Fine Arts’ modern art building has some fantastic art, too, and is well worth a swing through. There is amazing contemporary art in Havana: Lázaro Saavedra, Alejandro Campins, Sandra Ceballos, Michel Pérez “Pollo” (full disclosure, I wrote an intro to a new book of his work), Los Carpinteros, and so many more.     Speaking of artists, Hannah, how did you integrate yourself with Cuban youth to be able to take such intimate portraits? Where are your photographs displayed?  Hannah: I didn’t come to Cuba initially to make photographs or to delve into the glorious mind-boggle that is tourism. I didn’t come wanting to “become one with the Cubans” or anything of the like. It was slowly a combination of time and trust that allowed me to organically begin documenting the lives of people around me. Without trusting relationships with your subjects, it’s impossible to see anyone’s reality. My photographs are displayed currently online, at CubaRising.org. Ideally, when I return to NYC this summer, I can quench the thirst of an art gallery that wants to put on a Cuba show, but that’s still in the works, since Internet here in Havana is as slow as ever. Maybe Neuehouse has some interest…? (Ha!) [Maureen: feel free to include or remove the last sentence!]  NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext  What should we read, listen to, and watch?  Julia: Books: Alejo Carpintier, Jorge Mañach, Leonardo Padura. I’ve been meaning to read Wendy Guerra’s Todos Se Van for a while now; I hear she’s amazing, too. Movies, I like the classics, Gutiérrez Alea, Solás, and of course Fernando Perez. Music, too much to list, and I am leaving a lot out, but Roberto Fonseca, Ibeyi, X Alfonso, Haydee Milanés, Los Aldeanos, any of the work Gilles Peterson does with local musicians.     Hannah: If you are a first-time traveler to Cuba, I don’t see any harm in reading a tour book, though I would rely much more on your own curiosity to lead you down the path to adventure. I’d ABSOLUTELY recommend reading the three following books: Marc Frank’s Cuba Revelations, Julia Cooke’s Life in the New Cuba: The Other Side of Paradise, and Ann Louis Bardach’s Without Fidel. As far as movies are concerned, I love Suite Habana, but it is perhaps a bit dated, and only focuses on one socio-economic class in Cuba, though it’s a grand majority of the population.     Tourist traps to avoid?  Julia: Much of Old Havana. It’s gorgeous, and wonderful to walk around, but can also be an onslaught of hustlers.     Any souvenirs you always bring back with you?  Julia: Geometric necklaces from the tourist markets, rum.     When are you going there next?  Hannah: I’m here now!     Julia: In May; I can’t wait.  NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext

 

EL: How can we get there?

 

HC: There is now one direct flight a week from NYC to HAV, at the low price of just under $900. Americans traveling under a general license can also travel via Tampa or Miami, where combined, there are probably about a dozen flights daily. This is what Cuban-Americans have been doing for years.

 

EL: Although restrictions have eased, Americans still need a license to travel to Cuba. Can you explain what you offer travelers as a licensed travel consultant?

 

HC: Now, any American can go under any of the twelve categories that now fall under the guise of the general license.The people who travel with me to Cuba get a highly customized, intensive 7-13 days of “ask me anything and we’ll try to find the answer”.  I create and lead all of my tours, [which] are highly customized and small, as in 1-6 people total.  People who contact me about coming to Cuba already have in mind what they want to focus on [from youth culture to real estate]. It’s up to me to connect them with the people and places that interest them the most, with the end hope that it will lead to a meaningful relationship between Cuban and American.

 

EL: Any favorite hotels?

 

JC: I often stay in Havana at Casa Lilly. Lilly is warm and knowledgeable, and her style is great, too.

IMG_0446

 

HC: We stay in gorgeous homes or high-rise apartments with great ocean views. I avoid hotels as much as possible.

 

EL: Any up-and-coming areas of Havana or favorite neighborhoods?

 

JC: I will be spectacularly unoriginal if I say that I love Vedado — everyone loves central, buzzy Vedado, and I am no exception. But if I could live anywhere, it’d be in Nuevo Vedado, which is a bit more secluded on a hill above Vedado. It’s got a lot of phenomenal examples of tropical modern architecture, including my dream house, which I saw eight years ago on an architecture tour of Havana, wrote about years ago, and have not been able to get out of my head since.

NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext

 

EL: Cuban cuisine doesn’t have the best reputation. Please tell me there’s some good food on the island to be had!

 

JC: There are so many amazing restaurants in Havana since the loosened restrictions of the last few years.The old ones are La Guarida, La Esperanza, and Atelier. El Cocinero is newer, Ivan Justo, Le Chansonnier, and the patio at La Galeria.

 

EL: What are some of your favorite spots?

 

JC: Patio at Hotel Nacional for coffee/writing; breakfast isn’t as much of a thing in Cuba, so I’d recommend eating at casas; for music or dancing, locals (and I) love the Café Teatro Bertolt Brecht, or the Café Jazz Miramar, or whatever club is hot (five years ago, it was El Túnel, which I hear is still good); for tourist/local people watching while dancing, the Casa de la Musica Miramar.

 

EL: What’s your perfect day in Havana?

 

JC: A calm morning of writing, preferably outdoors; my old apartment had a patio that I loved to sit on to write, read, and drink coffee in the mornings. Most Cuban apartments and homes (Lilly’s is no exception) have amazing outdoor spaces. Head downtown, see some of the galleries or museums or visit some artist friends’ studios or visit with old friends, a nice lunch of pulpo (octopus) somewhere in there, a dip in one of the saltwater pools at the hotels in Miramar, and then, in the evening, dinner and music or dance or an open mic situation of some sort. There’s always a lot going on at night in Havana, which is lovely.

NeueJournal_HannahBerkeleyCohen_CubaWheretoGoNext

 

 

EL: How is the art scene?

 

JC: For art, try Factoría Habana or the Servando Galería de Arte. The National Museum of Fine Arts’ modern art building has some fantastic art, too, and is well worth a swing through. There is amazing contemporary art in Havana: Lázaro Saavedra, Alejandro Campins, Sandra Ceballos, Michel Pérez “Pollo,” Los Carpinteros, and so many more.

 

EL: Speaking of artists, Hannah, how did you integrate yourself with Cuban youth to be able to take such intimate portraits? Where are your photographs displayed?

 

HC: I didn’t come to Cuba initially to make photographs or to delve into the glorious mind-boggle that is tourism. It was slowly a combination of time and trust that allowed me to organically begin documenting the lives of people around me. Without trusting relationships with your subjects, it’s impossible to see anyone’s reality.

 

EL: What should we read, listen to, and watch?

 

JC: Books: Alejo Carpintier, Jorge Mañach, Leonardo Padura. I’ve been meaning to read Wendy Guerra’s Todos Se Van for a while now; I hear she’s amazing, too. Movies, I like the classics, Gutiérrez Alea, Solás, and of course Fernando Perez. Music, too much to list, and I am leaving a lot out, but Roberto Fonseca, Ibeyi, X Alfonso, Haydee Milanés, Los Aldeanos, any of the work Gilles Peterson does with local musicians.

 

HC: I’d recommend reading the three following books: Marc Frank’s Cuba Revelations, Julia Cooke’s Life in the New Cuba: The Other Side of Paradise, and Ann Louis Bardach’s Without Fidel. As far as movies are concerned, I love Suite Habana, but it is perhaps a bit dated, and only focuses on one socio-economic class in Cuba, though it’s a grand majority of the population.

 

EL: Tourist traps to avoid?

 

JC: Much of Old Havana. It’s gorgeous, and wonderful to walk around, but can also be an onslaught of hustlers.

 

EL: When are you going there next?

 

HC: I’m here now!

 

JC: In May — I can’t wait.

 

 

Photography: courtesy of Hannah Berkeley Cohen for NeueJournal