By G. Isabelle Abad
HAVANA TIMES — The Companion, the Cuban film which has been critically acclaimed worldwide, will premiere today, September 6th, in Cuba. The Companion is a story that takes place in Havana in 1988, when the Cuban government was taking severe measures to try and control the AIDS/HIV epidemic.
The main character, Horacio Romero, is played by Yotuel Romero (singer from Orishas). Horacio, a boxing champion, tested positive when he did an antidoping test. As punishment, he becomes the companion to a guarded patient in Los Cocos, a sanitarium under military control where HIV sufferers were admitted forcefully. His companion, Daniel (Armando Miguel Gomez) longs with all his heart to be free for the last of his days, while Horacio also fights to become free of his punishment so he can return to the ring. Both of them are willing to do whatever it takes for them to achieve their dreams.
The film has been successfully shown at many international film festivals, from Europe to the US. Furthermore, it was selected to represent Cuba at the Oscars in the US and the Goya awards in Spain.
We had the opportunity to interview Pavel Giroud, the film’s director:
HT: Where did you get the idea to cast Yotuel for The Companion? Was it difficult to find him or did you already know each other?
Pavel Giroud: No, some kind of magic happened between Yotuel and I. I had already decided on an actor to play the part, I’d even worked with him before, but he had a personal problem that prevented him from shooting the film and getting himself prepared for the part. Due to this problem, he was unable to train as a boxer and do other things, so we decided that the best thing to do would be to look for somebody else. Somebody suggested Yotuel to me, we got in touch with him, he asked for the script, and when he read it he answered me immediately, “I want to do this film, even if you don’t pay me a single cent.”
He fell in love with the story and then the magic that I told you about happened: Yotuel showed me a note on his telephone with a comment with my name that he’d written 6 months before. He’d been watching a TV program and had seen one of my interviews, as well as scenes from my films, and he told himself that he wanted to work with this man, that he wanted me to direct a music video for him. Six months later, the opposite happened and I was calling him to see if he would be the protagonist of my film.
HT: Although the way the Cuban government controlled the AIDS/HIV epidemic was successful, it still remains controversial because it was at the expense of patients’ basic freedom. Would you have used the same strategy?
PG: Look, it was exactly because of this that I decided to make this film, because the contradiction that this phenomenon sparked seemed very interesting to me to develop as my plot, as a lot of people, especially people involved with medicine, defended what they did, because it converted Cuba into one of the countries that quickly controlled the spread of this virus, whilst others, of course, questioned the fact that freedom is the most valuable thing a human being has and that this can’t be taken in exchange for anything, much less for medical treatment.
Of course, I’m not going to support something that limits a human being’s freedom. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have done this the way they did, but maybe I would have created a sanitarium, given all of the medical attention that they offered, but I would have also given patients the chance to be free and go home.
It’s very easy to say that when you’re so distanced from the subject, it was a time when the Cuban people, many of them who also criticized what was going on in the sanitariums, were very calm, at the same time, that HIV sufferers were locked up and far from their homes and lives. So, I guess now it’s easy to say that I wouldn’t have done this. Let there be no doubts, I don’t support any actions that limit a human being’s freedom.
HT: What obstacles did you come across when you made this film here in Cuba? Were there any restrictions?
PG: Yes, I had quite a few problems at the beginning to get funding, because I wanted to work independently of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), this brought me a lot of problems because, if you want to access international funds, you need a guarantee from the film institution in your own country.
Without this guarantee, I couldn’t get access to these grants. And it took them a long time to give it to me, so long, that I had to take the feature film to another country and give it another nationality. Then, yes, with time, after six years, when I was just about to shoot it, the ICAIC decided to “nationalize” it, which is what they call it. Then there are the typical obstacles any filmmaker from a third world country has, which is to find funding. You have to create a really complicated financial structure sometimes in order to achieve this. But at least, this is something all filmmakers have to do.
HT: For those of us who don’t know, what is a “guarantee”?
PG: It’s a document which certifies that my film is “Cuban” and that the film institution in my country guarantees it to be so. It’s a document which a lot of these grants ask for. This was the hardest thing to get my hands on.
HT: Were all the actors and workers Cuban?
PG: Yes, except Salvo Basile, an Italian-Colombian actor who has had a long acting career. It was a blessing to have him. On our technical team, there was the Venezuelan sound mixer Mario Nazoa, the editor was French, Jacques Commets, another one with a lot of cinematic experience. The film’s sound editing was done in Medellin, by Clap Studio, who did a really great job.
HT: What was the search like to find all those who took part in the film?
PG: My wife suggested Armando Miguel [Daniel]; my mother suggested Camila Arteche [Lisandra], and Jazz Vila did the impossible when he took on the role of Boris and gave an excellent performance. I went directly to Yailene Sierra [Doctor Mejias] and Jorge Molina [gambling patient], just like I did with Salvo Basile [trainer] when they told me there had to be a Colombian actor.
Yerlin Perez was my choice for the character “Chely” since a long time ago. And for the role of Daniel’s mother, I treated myself to enjoy, even if it were just a few minutes, Broselianda Hernandez. I was looking for an actress that looked more like Armando physically and Jazz Vila [Boris] encouraged me to call Broselianda. I didn’t know whether an actress of her standing would accept such a small role, but she did, she accepted.
HT: What would you say to Cuban artists who aspire to be film directors and/or want to work in film?
PG: I always say that the only piece of advice that I am qualified to give is to not self-censor themselves; also that they write down every idea they have, anything they want to do. Then we’ll see, when your film is made, whether they censor you or not. However, if you begin to self-censor yourself in the creative process, I don’t think you’ll be able to create a very convincing film.
HT: Have you always lived in Cuba? Do you still live in Havana?
PG: I’m now living in Madrid for work reasons; I’ve been here two years now doing things, and I’m here, but I’ve lived my entire life in Cuba. I’ve traveled the world over, I’m one of those privileged enough to do this, because to be honest, we artists in Cuba are very privileged people, because it was impossible for an ordinary Cuban to get on a plane and travel for a very long time, and many people haven’t ever flown even though they wanted to. But yes, I’ve always lived in Cuba because I’ve always been nourished by its stories and it’s where I feel most comfortable in the world; even though it’s very hard to live on the island, I’m always coming and going.
HT: Where in Havana are you from?
PG: I lived the first part of my life on Jose Maria Street, in Old Havana, and I lived in Vedado from 1995 onwards.
HT: Well, thank you very much for your time.
PG: Thank you for your interest.
Pavel Giroud, born in Havana and a graduate of Cuba’s Advanced Design Institute, is a film director and writer known for: Three times Two (2004), Omerta (2008); The Silly Age (2006) and The Companion (2015).