'The Companion': less style, more freedom – interview with the director Pavel Giroud

"Ojala that the public likes it, is my only expectation. I do not remember a harder festival than this one", he says as he sips coffee on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional. "The quality of the films is impressive. Some have won awards in important international festivals. It would be good to win some kind of prize, they always bring advantages, but my better wish is that the film is well received by the audience. If it transcends the limits of the cinema auditorium and influences people, I will be totally satisfied."

Giroud was immersed in the project for some years. First he had in his a script, then he found producers, later he began to work with others…It was not until he won the 11 Foro de San Sebastien 2013 that the palns consolidated and production began to flow.With this story, the director of ‘La Edad de la Peseta' (2007) has an advantage – risky but ultimately an advantage – that makes him one of the first to do something. "The theme of HIV/Aids has only been explored in Cuban cinema by Gerardo Chijona, with his film ‘ Boleta a Paraiso' (Ticket to Paradise, 2011). If you can distance yourself from what has already been done you always have a point in your favour.

The theme of HIV/Aids interested Giroud starting with the number of contradictions in it. "One time I read a report from the United Nations on the favourable position of Cuba, from the point of view of statistics in respect of the spread of the virus and its good results in the domestic struggle against the disease. The island was amongst the nations with the best situation in the world."

"These statistics created a conflict in me, as I asked myself hoe a country where people have such an active sex life and a reputation for promiscuity, obtains such results.""My curiosity carried me then to do research and that research took me to the Los Cocos Sanatorium. This place had had many detractors for the little free movement of the patients, but also many defenders who recognised in that limited freedom a way of controlling the spread of the virus."

"Anyway, although at the beginning I intended to condemn the errors that had been committed there in respect of the treatment of humans, that position disappeared and I preferred to show a conflict from which each viewer would be able to draw their own conclusions."

Although the director had clear from the beginning the theme he wanted for his film, but not the specific story, his decision was to pursue research in the sanatorium. It revealed to him the existence of ‘companions'.

"When I discovered these people, I knew what my story would be. The companions were responsible for guarding the patients on their one day of leave each week. What perks the patients got depended on them and their endorsement as trustworthy patients to be able to go out alone and be integrated into society."

Giroud's companion differs from the real one because the director needed him to give depth to the frame.

"Those guardians were medical students, health service workers and people interested in the position because it was very well paid. These people only met the patients on leave days. My one is a sportsman punished for taking performance enhancing drugs and lives in the sanatorium."

Sharing the same surname, Romero, brought the character closer to the actor that gives him life. Horacio the character, Yotuel, the actor. The director spent a lot of time looking for the protagonist of his drama, as those candidates that convinced him physically did not act in the right way, and vice versa.

"But as soon as I spoke to Yotuel, I knew that he was the one. Someone who has his disposition is capable of achieving anything. I called both actors (Yotuel and Armando Miguel, who plays the patient) personally. I did not do casting."

In a month the ex-member of Orishas (Yotuel) had learned to box because Horacio is a boxer, the greatest in Cuba at the end of the 80s. Furthermore, all the time during filming he kept a tone of voice lower than his own because the director did not like his natural tone for that character. His way of walking also underwent changes.

"Yotuel and Horacio are very different. The first is extrovert, happy, casual; the second is repressed, serious, complex. And all that was achieved with an economy of resources, a quality which I value a lot in actors."

And precisely these, the actors, were responsible for Giroud's biggest satisfaction with the film. The level of secondary protagonists is very high. In fact, one of them Jorge Molina, once his character was given a name, words, gestures, converted a role that on paper was mediocre, into one with great impact."

Without doubt ‘The Companion' is very different from the previous cinematic work of its director. But it didn't happen by accident, it was totally deliberate.

"My mission was that this film be distinguished from the others. The previous features are more precise, they reveal my efforts to make the perfect picture, to not neglect a single detail. Some people who have seen it say it is less stylised. As for me, I like to say it is more free."

This interview appeared on ICAIC's website cubacine.cult.cu here

(Translation from spanish by Cuba50)

WATCH the trailer for 'The Companion' film with English subtitles here

NB. The sanatorium policy referred to in the interview was part of a policy developed in Cuba from 1986 and Los Cocos existed 1986-88. The policy ended by 1993. See report below.

Extract from 'Cuba's National HIV/AIDS Program' by C Gorry MA in MEDICC Review, April 2011, Vol 13, No 2 Just over 25 years ago, when volunteers returning from international service in Africa showed signs of a mystery illness, Cuban health authorities acted swiftly and decisively. Their response was modeled on classic infectious disease control and included an epidemiological surveillance system, contact tracing and screening of at-risk groups and blood donations, accompanied by intensive research and development.

The first AIDS-related death occurred in April 1986 and a policy of mandatory treatment in sanatoria was established, thought to be the most effective way of delivering the comprehensive medical, psychological and social care needed, and limiting the spread of the disease.[1] The sanatorium policy was harshly criticized by global media, human rights advocates, and some public health specialists. As scientific data emerged elucidating the pathology of the disease, public health understanding and Cuban policy evolved with it. As of 1993, an ambulatory care system made sanatorium treatment an option rather than an obligation.[1]

By then, thanks to the global introduction of antiretrovirals (ARV) in 1987, AIDS was no longer assumed a death sentence. Cuba's challenge at the time was to find the funds to afford costly medications, and simultaneously turn more attention to nationwide prevention. The pro-active incorporation of people living with HIV in educational campaigns organized within the National HIV/AIDS Program-most notably the founding of the AIDS Prevention Group (GPSIDA, its Spanish acronym) by patients in Havana's Santiago de Las Vegas Sanatorium in 1991-underscored this effort. Over two decades later, UNAIDS has lauded Cuba for its "exceptionally low 0.1% prevalence rate,"[2] and low rate of AIDS-related mortality.[3]

1. Pérez J, Pérez D, González I, Díaz Jidy M, Orta M, Aragonés C, et al. Approaches to the Management of HIV/AIDS in Cuba. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2004. 2. UNAIDS. Global Report: UNAIDS report on the global AIDS epidemic 2010. Geneva: UNAIDS; 2010. 3. UNAIDS. AIDS epidemic update 2009 [Internet]. 2009 Nov [cited 2011 Mar 21]. Available from: http://data.unaids.org/pub/Report/2009/jc1700_epi_update_2009_en.pdf