Interview: Cuban Filmmaker Tomas Piard

by Francisco Castro

“If you are going eat, wait for Virgilio”

HAVANA TIMES – As part of the celebration of “Virgilio Piñero Year” to commemorate the centenary of the Cuban writer, Cuban TV commissioned filmmaker Tomas Piard, to do a dramatized version of “If you’re going to eat, wait for Virgilio” a highly successful theatre play written by Jose Milian, with Ivan Garcia playing Virgilio.

Now, with the shooting finished, Thomas Piard shares with HT’s readers his criteria on the work, the celebrated writer, and his reasons for making the film.

Tomas Piard: I didn’t know this work and when I read it I found it fascinating, very outspoken. Then I saw a video of the stage performances that Iván García acted in. Although it was Virgilio I was seeing on the stage – physically they’re very alike- it wasn’t the Virgilio that sticks in your mind as one of the three most important figures in Cuban literature of all time.

In the text what I saw was not a comedy, not a satire, not something seemingly grotesque, I was looking at an internalized Virgilio, a Virgilio who must have suffered a lot, and that’s in his work, that phrase: “I need air”, the female character in Cold Air seems to me is a way of voicing a some imperious need he had – Virgilio the creator. That’s the Virgilio I wanted to show, the tragic Virgilio.

Somehow that will be stated in this work, without abandoning the chiaroscuro of the character, because I couldn’t just wipe out in a stroke the Virgilio everyone knew and was tremendous, very ironic, acidic in his behavior with others. I think this was because he had to put up his guard to protect himself from the hostile world he faced. So I wanted the Virgilio who stayed with us for what he did, and that Virgilio has nothing to do with the mannerisms that are in the play.

I wanted to do this from the beginning, but Ivan Garcia had already created this character, had defined it, deeply rooted in the stage play, so I realized that the cleaning up process, to give it the tone I wanted, had to be done bit by bit.

Tomás Piard, left; with actor Ivan Garcia. Photo: Nelson Garcia

Thank God there’s one thing that’s very important and that’s that Ivan is a great actor, and I was extremely pleased to work with him. He’s very intelligent, has a great artistic sensibility, and little by little, in the chats we had together, I commented on the fragments of text that could be used as internal monologues, and he started to understand what I was trying to say, so much so that with one of the most poignant fragments, he said:

“Thomas, this is the first time I’m getting moved by this text, in the theatre piece I didn’t have time to say the words to the measure of the music”, and that stopped him from getting into the text, all the time he was on the outside, and as I wanted the internalized Virgilio, now he was able to do it.

I swear I’m very happy to have known him, to have worked with him, to create Virgilio the human being who left us an immeasurably valuable work, who didn’t end up in the history of Cuban culture by being classified a “sissy”, a derogatory term but the way most people see a character like that, something to laugh at, a joke, lots of things. That wasn’t the Virgilio I wanted, but the one that had to face very painful conflicts.

Unfortunately he had to go through a very dark period of Cuban culture and Cuban history, and I don’t think that by just saying “it was a mistake …” the debt will never be settled; unfortunately he didn’t see what is being done today, all of his works being put on when he never saw them performed on stage.

If there is such a thing as “other” dimensions, I hope he can see what is good today. For me it was very important to make this film and honor him in the same way I did with Lezama. For me they are two fundamental pillars of twentieth century Cuban culture, and possibly of the entire history of Cuban culture, counting Marti, of course, maybe they are the “Pythagorean triad” of Cuban literature.

The only set from “Si vas a comer, espera por Virgilio”. Photo: Daphne Guisado

The work is full of some very eloquent, very clear moments, for the person who can see it – unfortunately most people do not “see” things that happen – I tried to create a work in the context of 2012, the year of his centenary, where things are as they are externally.

The representation of the city was essential for me from what is in the text: trash containers in the street next to the people as they line up to get into the cafeteria to eat. These trash bins were significant for creating the visual scenography of the context in which the work takes place. That’s why I magnified those trash bins as the Vedado that surrounds the Capri cafeteria, where the action unfolds.

So I hope people see something that is there in the street, that this visual element brings them back to the here and now, and makes them reflect on the events in which Virgil was involved in that very tough period when I was very young, that I did not suffer from personally.

But many of my friends who were older, who were already incorporated into the cultural context of the island, I indeed saw suffering, saw them in pain. Unfortunately I didn’t meet Virgilio, but I knew who he was and knew of the humiliation he suffered.

In the story, it’s only when they’re authentic, things become universal and don’t age, because art really does not age. And audio visual expression is more inclined than others to age very quickly. I try, but I don’t know if I am succeeding.

I believe this work can be seen in the way I see it myself. The four theatrical performances were an outright success, I think this work has become part of the cultural heritage of this nation, and although it takes place in the context of the 1960s and1970s, it can say a lot to intelligent people able to capture the pain and especially the tears and questions as to why human beings are subjected to such torture unnecessarily, because Virgilio did not deserve his fate in life. It’s very nice now paying tribute on his centenary, but that does not settle the matter.

I think true artists have to be good people, and despite the irony that characterized Virgilio, he couldn’t have been a bad person if he created the works he did, that he left us. That man had to be a good person, and that’s why I’m doing this film, for the people who will come after.