Jesús is a young gay hairdresser in the heart of Havana, Cuba, whose dreams of becoming a lip-synching drag queen are threatened when his hard-drinking widower dad comes home from prison surprisingly soon. A fresh take on the usual father-son saga, the dramatic film is full of colorful characters and hope, with ample scenes of contemporary Cuban life to enjoy.
How did an Irish director wind up making a film about drag queens in Cuba?
Myself and one of my producers (Rob Walpole) went on holiday to Cuba and stumbled across a drag show in a hotel off the beaten track. We got talking to a woman in the audience and when one performer started miming a powerfully raw emotional song, this woman began to cry. I asked her why she was crying and she told me the performer was her brother and the only time he was happy was when he was on stage. I found the powerful emotional quality of the performances fascinating and a few years later came up with an idea for a father son story set in that world.
I approached the writer Mark O’Halloran and we spent time in Cuba to research the world a bit more. Cuba has been on the cusp of change for sometime and it makes it a fascinating place to set a story in. There’s so much life there. We wanted to be as authentic as possible and get as close to making a Cuban film as possible. Lots of films that shoot in Cuba take the perspective of a visitor exploring an exotic place. We felt this would be a mistake. In everything we did we tried to make sure it was authentic.
We knew it couldn’t be made anywhere else and we knew it had to be made in Spanish.
Is there a large drag scene in Cuba?
It isn’t on every street corner but there’s a scene. Mainly in the larger cities. When we started working it was mostly underground. I remember going to shows in someone’s back yard in a rundown suburb of Havana. They put up a red sheet and a spotlight and this drab place was transformed into a place of dreams and possibilities. The performers mimed to powerfully emotional song of love and loss. Sweat and tears were spilt and the reality of the surrounds were forgotten.
The film in some ways is about transformation and how through artifice we can reach deeper more profound truths about ourselves. Now the clubs are more established but you still find that raw emotional quality to the performances.
What is the Cuban feeling about homosexuality?
Officially gays were badly treated for a long time and we came across many harrowing stories when we were researching the film. A few years ago the state apologized for the way gays had been treated. Raul Castro’s daughter Mariella was influential in changing attitudes officially. I’m not an expert or a representative so I’m reluctant to speak on their behalf. It’s a macho culture and in general culture changes slowly but my impression is things are much better.
Is there a large sex trade as well?
Yes. It’s not organized though and doesn’t appear to have the links to criminality that it does in other countries. There are many people involved who in the normal course of events would never find themselves in that position.
Is it challenging to film in Cuba?
There were lots of hurdles and I couldn’t say it was easy but it was a wonderful adventure. The hurdles were often practical things or artistic considerations and not really difficulties with authority. We had great Cuban partners and cast and crew so we were never in too much trouble.
Is boxing still big? Is it still considered a way to leave the country?
Boxing is a big part of the culture and the club we filmed in had produced some of the world’s great amateur boxers. There’ve been many cases of boxers not returning after fighting in international events and for a while I think Cuban teams didn’t travel as much. I don’t know how recent events with the USA have changed this, but just before that announcement I read that the number of Cubans turning up in the USA was at its highest level since the mid-‘90s.
What were some of the more surprising things you learned about Cuba?
There’s a great solidarity amongst the people and there’s a real sense of civic culture. People are aware of what’s happening around the world, they are generally well educated. You don’t get that cultural sophistication side-by-side with a state of physical decay and poverty. It’s very unusual. It’s very safe for a foreigner — as long as you don’t fall down a pot hole on a dimly lit street! It’s a country that’s full of paradoxes and is totally compelling if you get beyond the tourist experience. I love it and the Cubans. They are great people.
The acting is phenomenal. Is there a wealth of Cuban talent?
That was a big surprise for me. The depth of great acting talent really opened up the possibilities for this film. I probably had set out on a more restrained style until I started auditioning but the quality of the actors I began to see quickly let me know I could be more expansive emotionally with the film.
There’s very good training and after graduating the actors have work with a theatre company. If they aren’t doing a show they’re doing rehearsed readings so they are always practicing. There’s a hunger there too to show themselves, to show what they can do if they get a chance. I had a great casting director Libia Bastita and I learnt a lot from her. When they read the script and saw we were serious people they were very keen to work on the film.
On my first day of prep I got off the plane and went to see Jorge Perrgorria to convince him to do the film. I was still getting up to speed with my Spanish and was very nervous that I mightn’t have enough language to convince him. But we had a long and detailed chat and we laughed a bit and began to connect. When he agreed to do it I was thrilled as I knew he’d bring so much to the film. We even ended up swimming and drinking rum in the sea with Libia! Then I began to feel it was going to be a great adventure.