David Opie sits down with director Pavel Giroud to talk about The Companion, a Cuban drama set during the 1980’s HIV epidemic. The film is currently having a successful run at film festivals worldwide.
David Opie: The Companion is a fantastic film from start to finish. What is your favourite moment in the movie? What are you most proud of?
Pavel Giroud: I´m not sure if I have a favourite moment in the film. I feel proud that I made it. I think The Companion is a fluid, accessible and inspiring story that goes beyond its 2 hour running time. I like that people come to me after watching the film and ask me about my country and that period in history. It was fun shooting the boxing match, but tense as well, because I only had one session to shoot it in. However, it was even harder to shoot the scene in which Daniel tells his story. This scene should be touching, but not melodramatic and I think we succeeded in achieving that.
DO: The Companion is your first feature film since Omertà was released in 2008. What have you been doing in between these projects?
PG: I started a family, which obviously took up a lot of time. Also, I have made some documentary films, music videos and many other projects. This year, I´m promoting two feature films that I have shot; a documentary called Playing Lecuona that was awarded recently at the Festival des Film du Monde in Montreal (co directed) and of course, The Companion. Both were ambitious projects that involved a difficult development process prior to filming.
DO: What challenges did you face making The Companion?
PG: Making a film is always a challenge. In this case, the greatest challenge was to stay strong in the face of the numerous obstacles that we met in the six years prior to filming. There were days where I wanted to leave everything about The Companion behind and start a new project, but my family provided me with the encouragement needed to continue. Another challenge was being far away from my wife and our son for so long over 4 months of shooting.
DO: It was fascinating to learn about this unique period within Cuban history. What drew you to this era? What research did you have to do?
PG: I researched the topic for a year before I even wrote the first line of the script. I enjoy that part of the process. My previous films are also set in the past, during the middle of big historical conflicts and I had to do my research about these periods too. The breaking point was a news story about the AIDS statistics in Cuba. My country has been particularly successful in keeping the spread of AIDS to a minimum, but for me, that is very contradictory. Sex is the national sport in Cuba and during this era, the use of condoms was not common.
Upon starting my research, the sanatorium Los Cocos immediately sprung up, a place full of urban legends. At that point of the process, my one intention was to condemn the way that the Cuban Government had resolved the problem, imprisoning HIV patients there without the choice for freedom. Later, I realised that each country had their own controversial politics in regard to controlling the spread of the virus. From there, I turned my focus to human nature and the sanatorium became more about ambience, a very rare, cinematographic and seductive location. I hate to use cinema to condemn, I prefer to use films to generate questions and encourage the audience to find their own answers.
DO: Many people remain divided about how Cuba dealt with the 1980’s HIV epidemic. What is your view on the situation?
PG: I introduced that theme in your previous question. Actually, the first generation of patients in Los Cocos were heroes. Thanks to them, Cuba is a country almost clean of the AIDS virus. There are still too many cases, of course, but it has proved to be a very effective control program. People say that use of the Los Cocos system was a violation of human rights and it’s true, because freedom is the most important of all birthrights, but at the same time, Cuba was the first state that used a program to effectively control the spread of HIV. In the USA, more than 22, 000 people died before the Government first began to offer their help. Many people that derided Cuban Authorities for their methods were still sleeping soundly, knowing that the sick people were there, behind a wall and far away from their world.
It was interesting to learn that when the sanatorium doors first opened, many patients chose to stay there, preferring the sanatorium to the real world, but later, it became mandatory. The issue here is not a problem of Governments or political systems, it’s a human trouble. Throughout history, there have been similar situations, such as when the Black Death pandemics killed half of Europe in the 14th century and even more recently, South Korea has had to quarantine people in a similar situation to Los Cocos due to the MERS virus.
DO: Every country has their own traditions and customs. What do you think makes Cuban films unique within world cinema?
PG: That’s a hard question to answer. We are in a new starting point, where Cuban Cinema is developing in different ways. Some years ago, Cuban cinema was almost a genre in itself, because each film talked about the same problems and used the same type of narratives and aesthetics. Of course, there were some exceptions though, like Tomás Gutierrez Alea, a creator with a deep personality. Now there are many different styles of Cuban cinema; we make zombie movies alongside hermetic author cinema.
There are some criteria that differentiate Independent Cuban Cinema from Official Cuban Cinema. The first strives to produce and explore new dilemmas on screen, holding a presence at important film festivals worldwide while hopefully winning awards. In contrast, Official Cuban Cinema has more of an impact on the Cuban circuit and is almost invisible in the rest of the world. These are the films produced or coproduced by ICAIC.
DO: You’ve been described as the “new Cuban Truffaut” in the past. Is he an inspiration in your work? What other filmmakers have had an impact on you as a director?
PG: This comparison arose due to a film I made titled La Edad de la Peseta. Some people saw common elements in that film that bore a resemblance to Truffaut´s 400 Blows. My contribution to 3 Veces Dos, a movie directed by three filmmakers, was a tribute to Vertigo, so to many people, I am also known as “The Cuban Hitchcock”. I´m waiting to see what new name I will be given after The Companion is widely released, but in reality, I don’t feel like this film has an obvious comparison that could be made. This is the first time that I haven’t explicitly looked to other films for reference. The Companion comes from life, not from the cinema.
General influences on my work as a whole vary greatly, including American Cinema from the 1970s – Scorsese, Schlesinger, Polansky (my son Roman is named after him), Coppola, Forman, Friedkin and Lumet. Other filmmakers who have inspired me also include Billy Wilder, Hitchcok, Murnau, Goddard, Luis Malle, Melville, Antonioni and Kurosawa,
DO: What’s next for you once you have finished promoting The Companion on the festival circuit?
PG: I don’t ever stop. I´m currently working on several projects, but I prefer to keep them secret for now.
Many thanks to Pavel Giroud for taking the time for this interview.