When Paddy Breathnach first visited Cuba in the mid-1990s, he stumbled into a club where drag queens were performing. Though the Irish-born director had seen drag performances before, he found himself unusually captivated by the lip-synching on stage — in a communist country with restrictive laws and attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
"It had this raw emotional energy to it," he recalled. "I wouldn't claim to be a world expert on drag, but from other areas I've seen drag, the drag queens in Cuba are very different."
This encounter became the basis for Breathnach's latest film, "Viva," showing Tuesday and Thursday at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. One of nine on the shortlist for best foreign language film at the Oscars, the picture stars Hector Medina as Jesús, a young, gay hairdresser for drag queens with aspirations of one day taking center stage.
His dreams are dashed when his macho father (Jorge Perugorría) returns from a 15-year stint in jail. Forbidden to work for his drag queen friends, Jesús turns to sex work to take care of himself and his dad.
The Magnolia Pictures film will have a limited release in the U.S. early this year.
Before the film's Palm Springs debut, Breathnach, known for 1997's "I Went Down" and 2007's "Shrooms," spoke with The Times via Skype from Ireland about filming "Viva" in Cuba, the country's drag community and shooting a movie in Spanish without really knowing the language.
Describe the difference between the Cuban drag community and others you've encountered.
Cuban drag has a certain emotion to it. Maybe it's the circumstances of the place that give it that type of energy. There's a raw performance of emotion and power in those Cuban drag artists. It was so physical and so present that I felt it was a great vehicle to explore some of those unvarnished, unpolished emotions.
I remember going to a couple shows that were in backyards. These queens were quite ordinary people, but they would throw up a red sheet and one spotlight, and suddenly it transformed into a theater. It transformed both the setting and themselves.
In the film, Havana, the city, is just as much a character as Jesús or his father. How did you go about ensuring that?
When we went to Havana, we noticed that there are two parts of the city. One of them is where the tourists are directed: It's beautiful and renovated and a lot of music. But if you go a kilometer in any direction, you're going to come across a different Havana, a realer Havana. It was in the script to make sure it was an authentic, real, true sense of the place and not an overly romanticized view.
We had 22 days and a small budget, so I knew going into it that we couldn't afford tons of extras to re-create vibrancy. So, as the Cubans say, we decided "to go free," [meaning when you see extras in the film, they were regular people on the street, not paid actors]. We didn't try and stop people from walking down the street. The people on the buses are all real people on the bus who weren't aware we were going to be filming.
The film also has some truth in showing sex work as a last resort for survival, as opposed to a proactive choice. Was that an important element of the story line?
That was a necessity. It's something that's a truth in Cuba. Lots of people have been forced to do things they might not normally do. People who might not normally be expected to go into [sex work] have gone into that because life is hard and it's difficult to make a living and that's the only option. It's wrong to say there's an acceptance of it there, but people understand the reasons behind it.
Tell me about working with a Spanish-speaking cast when you don't speak the language.
I had could-get-by Spanish, but I was nervous beforehand. I knew the script very well and knew the nuances of it, but Spanish isn't even my second language. I discovered quite quickly that if you have something to say and know what it is you want to say, you can overcome language barriers. To get it across yourself with your conviction and force of your personality, [the actors] see the intent in what you're doing.
You obviously make use of English subtitles throughout the film, but you don't during the drag performances. Why?
That's a question that's come up in festival screenings, but once you start reading, you lose that raw power. You're reading and thinking rather than watching and feeling. When I saw those drag queens the first time, I didn't know what they were saying, but I could feel it. I wanted the audience to have the same feelings I did.
What about the story do you think resonates most with audiences?
We haven't shown it in Europe at all yet, just in America, but a lot of people have connected with the theme of change and managing it in a way that helps people heal. There's also the idea as well where somebody has to become the master of two worlds, having their individual identity established and accepted but also realizing their place within the tribe or broader group. And obviously it's a father-son story as well, so that's kind of universal.
What was your reaction to being on the Oscars shortlist as Ireland's national submission?
I was delighted and thrilled. We knew we had a chance because the reaction was strong [at film festivals]. But there's so many films that people don't know a lot about. It's like a horse race where you don't know the exact formula. It's difficult to gauge. But really, you make a film, and it becomes a great experience, and you want the adventure to keep going. If "Viva" got the chance to become a nominee, it'd be a great adventure to continue for a bunch of Irish people going to make a film in Cuba in Spanish.