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Arts & Culture

Irish Filmmaker Looks To Drag Queens In Cuba For 'Viva'

Héctor Medina stars as Jesus, a young gay hairdresser who aspires to be a drag queen in "Viva."
Magnolia Pictures
Héctor Medina stars as Jesus, a young gay hairdresser who aspires to be a drag queen in "Viva."

Film premiered at San Diego Latino Film Festival in March

Companion viewing

"Paris Is Burning" (1990)

"Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994)

"Ma Vie En Rose" (1997)

"Viva" had its San Diego premiere at the San Diego Latino Film Festival this past March. Now it returns for a week-long engagement at the Digital Gym Cinema.

When Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach visited Cuba in the 1990s he saw some drag shows in Havana. In his director's statement for the film, he wrote: "A sheet hung up in a suburban backyard and a single light bulb created a theatre and a world of dreams out of nothing. This power of transformation and creation was driven by a desire to express identity in a raw, unabashed, passionate voice. It was intoxicating."

Breathnach wanted to make a film about drag performers in a communist country where laws and attitudes were less than welcoming to the LGBT community. The result is "Viva," the story of a young gay man named Jesus (Héctor Medina) who aspires to drag performing but faces fierce opposition from his macho father Angel (Jorge Perugorría).


Jesus is a hairdresser working at a Havana nightclub featuring drag performers. Mama (Luis Alberto García) recognizes Jesus' desire to perform and encourages him to take the stage. But his debut is disrupted by the unexpected appearance of his estranged father who punches his son in the middle of the performance. The develops into both a journey of self-discovery for Jesus as well as a tale of a father and son trying to come to terms despite their differences.

American films often emphasize the external trappings of drag with a focus on drag queens who are flamboyant and over the top. "Viva," on the other hand, reveals that for Jesus it’s all about finding an outlet to express emotions and an identity that society has tried to suppress.

Breathnach said he and screenwriter Mark O'Halloran "wanted to explore a theme of transformation and the alchemy of connecting to deeper truths through the use of artifice. At the heart of the story is a battle for identity and love between a father and son."

Jesus and the other drag queens don't lip-synch to pop songs for some kitschy effect but rather with the raw emotional power of an Edith Piaf belting out a ballad.

Breathnach turns "Viva" into a film that is both sweetly endearing and rooted in the real world. The performances by the three leading men are all superb but Medina is especially good as Jesus.


"Viva" (in Spanish with English subtitles and rated R for language throughout, sexual content and brief graphic nudity) runs Friday through June 16 at the Digital Gym Cinema, and like all good drag shows, it leaves you wanting more.