“Truth”: this is the word that seems to stand out when Paddy Breathnach discusses his latest feature film, Viva. What he finds beautiful he tends to describe as containing truth; he cheerfully details the lengths he went to portray truth on screen; and he devotes a lot of time to moderating his own statements in order to stress that he is limited by his own perception and, as such, not an arbiter of truth. But his film is a beautiful and honest one, an unabashedly sincere celebration of the human emotional experience. Such a thing is beautiful not only because it’s honest, but because it implies an optimism about and general appreciation for humanity, a borderline revolutionary idea in a year increasingly becoming characterised by man’s capacity for inflicting horror. To embrace the earnest in a world which has been previously defined as “post-factual” might actually be revolutionary in itself.
The conversation at one point turns to revolution and the subject of Herbert Marcuse, a writer whom Breathnach has mentioned in previous interviews about the film. “At the time I remember being very interested in [the philosophy of Marcuse],” he says. “One of the things that resonated with me was the idea that the revolutionary nature of the intention of art wasn’t in its overt politics, but was in its sensuality or its overt beauty, that the true potential for art to transform is in the substance of the art itself. I hugely respect it. I probably couldn’t be a good Political filmmaker with a capital P. I’m not a good campaigner, I’ve too much self-doubt, too much desire to ameliorate my statements and to double check them and all that. To be a strong polemicist or Political filmmaker with a capital P, I just don’t have the ability to do that.”
Though Breathnach’s film is directed by an Irishman, written by an Irishman (Marcus O’Halloran) and funded by An Bord Scannáin, the story is inspired by (and based in) Cuba, and more specifically in the dusty glamour of its drag bars. Breathnach found the passion and sincerity of the performers enchanting. “[Their] songs are songs that are quite plaintive, quite raw emotionally, [sung by] women in their 40s or 50s singing about their lives, lives where they have been treated badly. They have very strong questions about why this happened. They’re very provocative songs, in the sense that they ask the person listening directly ‘Why did you do this to me?’ or ‘What is this about?’. Combine this with a drag artist who’s transforming and has the desire to become or be something else in that moment. The combination of that plaintive, raw emotional voice and the desire to transform makes some sort of crazy, weird alchemy that I found very moving and powerful.”
When Breathnach and O’Halloran ventured to Cuba together for inspiration, Breathnach developed an interest in the idea of earnest yet ad hoc efforts to perform drag and furnish a theatre. “One of the first times I saw this improvisation was when I went to a show with Mark in a blue-collar area in Havana,” he says. “[Drag culture] was a bit clandestine at this stage; it’s not at all now. We went in, knocked on the door and were brought through a house into a back garden. In the back garden there was a red bed sheet on the back wall and one spotlight. A performer came out, Marie Dalia. She could have been a bus driver — she looked like a bus driver — but then brought out this incredibly strong performance which captured us completely. I remember thinking to myself, one red bed sheet, and one light, and this performance, and it’s transformed this back garden into a theatre, into a place of dreams and possibilities. That is fascinating to me, that out of nothing you can get close to expressing something so human, heartfelt and deep, something that means so much to other people… out of shit basically, something that’s thrown together.”
Breathnach takes out his phone and begins to flick through a photo series by Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm. Strömholm befriended and took black-and-white photos of young trans people attempting to adjust to their new lives as women or raise money for their sex reassignment operations in ’60s Paris. Breathnach points me to one in particular: a woman with pouting lips, ski-slope nose and a cigarette held daintily between two leather-gloved fingers. “I was very interested in this photo for creating the part of Jesus,” he says. “You can see the shadow, the shaving marks, the wigs aren’t brilliant, the eye makeup is very strong for a natural look, but yet I find huge beauty in that… In terms of gender, what we were interested in was the feminine within the male. Imperfection is probably a clumsy word to use. I’m talking more about imperfection in an artistic sense, but these images are far more truthful than a perfected image, and they reflect a desire to become.” As Breathnach further explains, the concept of Jesus’ character is multi-faceted, complex. “For me, one of the central images very early on that I got was the idea of a son serenading his father with the music of his mother. That is something that comes through or is developed during the film.”
Breathnach’s film is, notably, in Spanish, despite neither writer nor director being fluent in the language. It’s an obstacle that some may have shirked away from, but Breathnach seems to have dived in happily and without incident. “Mark at that stage didn’t speak any Spanish,” he says. “My Spanish was limited enough and I began to cram it — I suppose in the way you’d approach an exam — to get it up to a certain level. My Spanish never got brilliant, but I was fairly confident in my ability to get my point across. Literal meaning: if there’s a misunderstanding, you can iron that out — translators can help you do that — but the spark that excites you both has to be something that happens between two people at a particular moment. Language, while it is important, is only one aspect of communication. So if you’ve a passable level of language you can get a huge amount across if you both know what you’re talking about and have the same points of reference. I was involved in the translation process, so not only do I know it in the English language but I’ve gone through every line and every bit of punctuation in the Spanish text, so in a very mechanical sense you ingest [the text].”
Breathnach attempts to further elucidate for me the experience of intuitive, nonverbal communication. “So say we’re both talking, we both know what’s in that.” He points to my drink beside me, its straw lolling between melting ice cubes. “It’s ice, it’s Coke, it’s a straw…” [For the sake of journalistic integrity, I should clarify that the drink in question was in fact an iced Americano.] “We know the elements of what are in that. So I now have to describe to you what each one of those things does in a language that isn’t my language, but you already intuitively understand, you have the same map that I have. So I’m saying ‘see the ice, feel the coldness of the ice, etc.’ In a funny way, what’s more important than the specific fluency you might have is the sort of conviction and emotional conviction you have in how you’re communicating with somebody, and with that, if they are engaged with you, there’s almost a romance about it.”
Breathnach embraces the romance of the film and its setting of the Havana slums, though is quick to point out the how problematic it is to romanticise the abject poverty. “[Romance] can be misplaced,” he says. “Things that seem romantic may have a very unpleasant reality beneath them.” Just as the film unfurls like flower’s petals and grows more rich as it progresses, the entropy of Havana brings it closer to a greater state of being in Breathnach’s eyes. “All of the buildings had glory, and the glory has faded from them. What’s interesting about those slums in Havana, it’s beauty decaying. The more it decays, the more we see the beauty that lies within.”
Viva is precious and beautiful, and is too richly textured a film for any brief synopsis to distill, but its director, who oozes with the same kind of earnest appreciation for humanity as the film espouses, sums it up well. “For me, the film is about becoming, it’s about the process of emerging. Just that moment of becoming, finding your voice, singing for the first time, being alive, feeling alive.”
Viva is released on the Friday 19th August.
Words: Eva Short