There have been a number of AIDS-themed films over the years, but you’ll hardly find one quite like “The Companion.” This story of an unlikely friendship in a uniquely Cuban setting provides a fascinating window to the past. And with the film’s selection as the official Cuban entry for the Oscars, director Pavel Giroud hopes to share its empathetic message to the world. Recently, I caught up with Giroud to discuss his inspirations for the film and its historical premise. Below is an edited version of our chat.
Shane Slater: How did you get the idea to make this film? Was it based on a true story?
Pavel Giroud: I was reading a newspaper which showed the Cuban statistics for AIDS propagation. And I started wondering how a country like Cuba had such positive results. I started researching and I ended up reading about how the Cuban government controlled the propagation of AIDS in the 1980s. I was fascinated by the stories that took place and I landed on the companion system, which was something that they really did back then. That’s when I realized the companion had to be the main character. To get the audience into this completely undiscovered world.
SS: You’ve screened the film at various film festivals. How have international audiences responded to the film and the concept of sanatorium? Some could see it as very questionable from an ethical standpoint.
PG: I was really surprised that in any country from Korea to the U.S., people were asking the same questions and reacted the same, almost in the same order. I feel I achieved some kind of universality with the film.
With regards to the sanatorium, people couldn’t believe it was like that. It’s a situation that only took place in Cuba. They had the same uncertainty I had because on one hand, they were basically prisoners. But on the other hand, they had medical attention and free medication. And I’ve heard a lot about the ways other countries faced the situation. A lot of people died in other countries because they didn’t have this attention.
SS: Is the sanatorium still in use today?
PG: Yes, but it works in a different way than back in the 1980s. Now they teach you how to live with AIDS. In the 1980s it was a military facility. Then it belonged to the Health Department but the patients still could only leave once a week. Then after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was isolated, the government allowed anyone who wanted to leave to go home. But many of them decided to stay. They didn’t want to start their lives from scratch outside.
SS: The film incorporates elements from various genres. Were there any other films or filmmakers that inspired you?
PG: The American films from the 1970s. This is my homage to that cinema.
SS: Parts of the film reminded me of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” so that would explain it.
PG: Yes, that’s one of my favorite films.
SS: Your lead actor (Yotuel Romero) is more known as a singer. How did you get him to play this role?
PG: It was easy. I just called and sent him the screenplay and he read it. I told him there was not a lot of money to make the film and Yotuel said he wanted to do the film even if he had to pay for it. He fell in love with the project immediately.
SS: The film was selected to represent Cuba for the Oscars. Did it come as a surprise, and how does it feel to represent Cuba?
PG: Yes, it was a surprise. I wasn’t counting on it because Cuba sometimes doesn’t submit. I wasn’t even counting on a theatrical release in Cuba, because I heard that the government didn’t like the film. So I was surprised that it played in theaters, then I was surprised that it was Cuba’s submission to the Academy Awards. I am very happy to be in a race that I wasn’t counting on. It’s like all of a sudden being asked to run the final of the Olympic 100m out of nowhere! [Laughs].
SS: Are you working on anything now?
PG: I’m working on four new projects. Because this film took so long, I had time to develop other projects. The one I’m really looking forward to doing is about the Mariel exodus in the 1980s.