Film director Paddy Breathnach is an Irishman familiar with Cuba, as well as a straight man in touch with queerness. His touching new film, Viva, tracks the struggles of a gentle young man named Jesus (a marvelous Hector Medina) trying to keep body and soul together as a beautician and sex worker. His real dream is to become a drag artist. Havana’s poor neighborhoods are where this gritty and heartrending film is set.
When I asked Breathnach about differences between present day Cuba and that of Fidel Castro, he says he went there “to research the drag world and performance in the mid-1990s. Some were imprisoned and others marginalized and were congregating secretly in underground clubs. In the mid-2000s Cuban gays were more clandestine. But after 2010 it was more mainstream. There had been a softening of the state. Culture doesn’t change overnight. It moves slowly.”
He points out the consequential importance of Mariela Castro Espin, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex and a relentless advocate for GLBT rights, easing difficulty for obtaining the opportunity for sex reassignment surgery, and AIDS-related funding and assistance. She is the niece of Fidel, known for his harsh treatment of queer folk, and the daughter of current President Raul Castro.
As for Cuba’s current queer politics, things continue to improve. Breathnach says his gay screenwriter, Mark O’Halloran, was utterly invaluable. He says fondly, “Mark kept me on track with the politics of it.” The director points out the paradox of Cuba being very well educated, a by-product of the Castro legacy, yet still impoverished. Nonetheless, he feels that Cuba is “constantly on the verge. You get the feeling that momentous change is happening.”
Of course, there are uncanny similarities between Cuba and Ireland. Both are island countries longstandingly caught in the cross hairs of mightier powers. Both have daunting Roman Catholic legacies, though the Church’s grip in Ireland has loosened because of child abuse scandals associated with the clergy in recent decades. Cuba itself has felt the communist party loosening its grip as more international trade has been making an impact.
Breathnach muses “it was very easy for the Irish to go there and be accepted and feel that in some way there’s a kindred-ness. Maybe there’s a shared spiritual resistance.”
Starts June 3
Lagoon Cinema,1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis