noun – in music, the technique of artificially producing a high male singing voice that extends above the range of the singer’s full voice.
You need to pay close attention during Viva to catch the only hint that director Paddy Breathnach and writer Mark O’Halloran are foreigners making this Cuban film.
In one of the street scenes there is a flicker of a green jersey amongst the crowd in the background. ‘Ireland’ is written across the man’s chest. This was an accident; there just happened to be a Cuban wearing this top during one of the shoots and the camera caught it.
This is the only stamp of the writer and director’s nationality in the film and because it wasn’t intentional Breathnach let it through the final cut. This fitted with the style of ‘capturing not perfecting’ that he embraced in making this movie.
Throughout filming he was determined to leave things be, capturing the atmosphere of scenes rather than coercing his own views onto the lens.
The triumph of this laissez-faire approach has resulted in a project which eschews clichés. Instead, dressed up in authentic garb, and only tangentially colourful, the movie is a real Cuban story told in soaring falsetto; a tale of masculinity in crisis, with a father-son relationship at its centre, it succeeds in peeling back the chipped facades of Cuban society.
Paddy Breathnach (director of films I Went Down and Man About Dog) and Mark O’Halloran (scriptwriter and actor known for Adam & Paul and Garage who has a deft way of rendering characters) started discussions about a collaboration over a decade ago when they met at a film festival in Berlin; Breathnach admired the compassionate writing in Adam & Paul and pitched a Cuban adventure to O’Halloran.
Breathnach first glimpsed the drag world when he was, what he calls, an accidental tourist in Cuba during the nineties. Going off his itinerary, he came across a drag show and found it profoundly moving.
“For me, it’s the mixture of songs sung by women in their forties and fifties who’ve been mistreated maybe and have a sense of injustice. They’re singing in a very direct way, asking direct questions. The emotions are raw. Then you get a drag performer who wants to express something else and has a desire to show themselves in another way. The combination of those things created a magical feeling that entranced me.”
Since that trip, he has had an image of a son serenading his father with the music that his father and mother fell in love to. This picture formed the imaginative template for Viva.
When it got to shooting the film both were keen to avoid hackneyed troupes in depicting Havana. They kept reminding themselves of how daft Ireland used to appear to us natives when shown on the big screen.
“Up to the mid-eighties, most of our films were made by people outside of Ireland. They came to Ireland saw us and made films about us. Beautiful things, like Ryan’s Daughter, that usually involved a central character who wasn’t from the country or locality coming in to that country and the audience uses their eyes to see the unusualness of the society.” O’Halloran wasn’t interested in doing that; he felt it would be dishonest.
As a result, they bypassed the kitsch images of Ché Guevara, 1950s American cars and colourful buildings reproduced constantly on postcards and returned from every search engine. They choose not to film in Habana Vieja and avoided shots of the El Capitolio building; these places would immediately draw a tourist camera, they’re short-hand for the city, but they’re the background fabric often not seen by Habaneros as they go about their days.
They went deeper, choosing motifs and locations from which they could hang and unspool this tale of strife and melodrama.
They shot bridging scenes in the lush parks dotted all over the city which are regular pitstops for the industrious Cubans, who are always only seconds away from offering their services of one kind or another to passing tourists. O’Halloran is not just the scriptwriter but also has a minor, cheeky role as one of these seedy tourists.
By ensuring all the main characters were Cuban the story was immediately elevated beyond the perspective of a couple of tourists.
The layers of Cuban society they focused on are those just below the clichés and familiar to locals: the macho world of boxing, Cuba’s great Olympic sport; the subversive drag scene, where nightly self-expression gets its stage; and the dilapidated colonial structures that are home to the mundane and extraordinary lives that keep on keeping on under the Castro regimes.
Jesus, our lead character (played by Hector Medina), is a hairdresser who, when he isn’t being short changed by elderly ladies for their haircuts, fixes the wigs of the vivacious drag queen Mama (Luis Alberta García), who owns the local club.
Jesus (Hey-Zeus) is taken by the vitality of the queens and buoyed by the freedom that seems to come with their exuberant personas, and so he wishes to emulate their on-stage performances.
Wigs play a central role in this movie both onscreen and off. When O’Halloran went to Havana to immerse himself in the culture, he needed a way of endearing himself with the drag community over there. Anyone familiar with Cuba knows there is a scarcity of resources; O’Halloran exploited this with a little help from his friends in the Dublin gay community. He borrowed twenty wigs from Pantibliss and brought them with him in his suitcase.
Having checked into a gay B&B in Central Havana – which he described as like a non-stop Mexican soap-opera – he approached a famous drag queen on the Malecón seafront. He introduced himself as a filmmaker explaining why he was here. She dismissed him until he brandished the wigs from his bag. “Ooh!” came the inquisitive response. Mark was quickly paraded around and introduced to all the queens.
Soon they were knocking on his door daily looking for the wigs. This was how he heard their stories; he made sure to hand out the hair-pieces slowly, one-at-a-time, while extracting all the detailed strands he needed to enrich his story.
Jesus, when first auditioning in drag, is compared to an awkward Donatello Versace by the cutting queens. Clearly there’s more to this falsetto singing and lip-syncing than simply donning a dress, some eyeliner and lipstick.
The subversion of Cuban conformity that drag affords has to be earned. There must be feeling, you have to connect with your audience, Mama tells him.
Unfortunately, this is taken too literally as his first connection with the audience comes in the form of a punch. Delivered by his father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), a washed up boxer just released from prison, it’s an attempt by him to put the kibosh on his son’s new vocal vocation.
With this smack comes the drama of the film: a father reasserting his place, an older Cuba cramping the next generations’ efforts at being independent.
Angel moves into the high-ceilinged apartment with Jesus and soon the dynamic between father and son blurs as past glories and present pains are mixed at the bottom of empty rum bottles.
Boxing, as the second strand in the movie, can be seen as a metaphor for a more macho and restrictive Cuba. One which, by the end, is ailing and emasculated, dependent on Jesus and the change he is determined to chase.
Maybe older Cuba is getting more tolerant of a freer tune, perhaps it can hit those falsetto notes.
Last December O’Halloran travelled back for the Havana Film Festival when Viva played to the people it depicts. The night before the screening he saw Carol in the two thousand seater cinema where Viva would be shown the following night. It was a typical Cuban crowd and they didn’t get the slow pomposity of Carol. They found it boring and were vocal in their displeasure.
Mark winced his way through this somewhat terrified at how they’d react the following night to two Irish interloper’s interpreting their city and way of life.
“Thankfully, it played beautifully. They laughed volubly at all the right bits. They recognised the actors and scenes. At the end there was a lot of tears, big tears. One women came up to me after and said, ‘This is a Cuban film not an Irish film.’
Viva was nominated for the foreign language Oscar and is showing in selected cinemas nationwide.