LGBTQ South Florida

‘VIVA’ director: Film captures ‘raw, emotional performance you get in Cuban drag’

Héctor Medina in ‘VIVA,’ a Magnolia Pictures release.
Héctor Medina in ‘VIVA,’ a Magnolia Pictures release.

Film director Paddy Breathnach, a straight Irishman, experienced his first drag show 20 years ago during a vacation in Cuba.

“I was very taken with it because it had that quality — a raw, emotional performance you get in Cuban drag,” said Breathnach, who in the early 2000s got the idea for “VIVA,” a film about Havana’s well-known drag scene.

‘VIVA,’ which Breathnach eventually filmed in four weeks during late 2014, became a sensation at several film festivals the following year. On Tuesday, the film arrives on Digital HD via iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and other digital providers.

From several experiences in Cuba, Breathnach wrote an outline for “VIVA” and then turned it over to Mark O’Halloran, who wrote the screenplay. “I regard it as both of our films,” Breathnach said.

“Mark is a gay man,” Breathnach said. “Between the two of us, I was confident I had a pathfinder and navigator and collaborator.”

“VIVA” is about Jesús (played by Héctor Medina), a young, gay hairdresser who dreams of becoming a drag performer at the Havana cabaret in which he works. Jesús has two father figures: his real-life homophobic dad (Jorge Perugorría) and Mama (Luis Alberto García), his drag mentor

“We didn’t set out to make a gay film. We set out to make a film about a young man in that world. He happens to be gay,” Breathnach said. “We set out to be about the family relationship. His relationship with his father and also the drag family, that world. You can argue in some ways there is a mother figure, but she’s a ghost. He confronts his father with the spirit of his mother. She’s a mentor and she teaches him the world. He helps him navigate the journey, between that world and family.”

In the 20 years since he first visited Cuba, Breathnach said his life has changed.

“I was so moved by what I saw, it made me want to explore,” he said. “It’s really a film that encourages people to explore a world they do not know, to open themselves up to the lives of others. We were very concerned to be as authentic as possible, as outsiders, but not to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider.”