Kiki Álvarez was born in Havana in 1961, and has a degree in Art History, Communication Theory and Screenwriting. He is currently the head of the fiction film programme at Cuba’s International Film and Television School of San Antonio de los Baños (EICTV). He is the director of several acclaimed short and feature-length films, including our ttff/14 selection, Giraffes, which premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
In this story, Manuel and Lia are a young couple desperate to find accommodation in Havana. They manage to illegally lay their hands on the keys to an old house in the city centre. If that didn’t put enough of a strain on their relationship, the previous occupant, Tania, who had actually been evicted, refuses to give up her home. A silent, tense and provocative domestic war among these three beautiful, vulnerable, volatile twenty-somethings ensues and plays out as an impending hurricane places them under lockdown.
Our blogger Aurora Herrera got a chance to speak with Kiki Álvarez ahead of his trip to T&T for the screening of his film.
What made this interplay between the three protagonists attractive to you?
Giraffes was born from an idea of Claudia Muñiz [the film’s scriptwriter and one of the two lead actresses]; she conceived the story and wrote the screenplay based on general and personal experiences. It just gave me a premise to work from that also guaranteed that my ideas about the production design would allow me to control the direction and staging and also to work with the actors how I wanted to in order to achieve the things I wanted to explore in their characters.
Many of the scenes seem very organic and as if you let the three actors improvise and feed off of the others’ energy. How much of a role did the script play when shooting?
To ensure that air of spontaneity that runs through the film I made sure to test very little; there are only two scenes that I thought were fundamental for the definition of the characters and the to establish the tone of the relationships between them. Then the rest was playing around every day, finding the specificity of each moment and how to film it. My idea was that the actors seek and generate energy in every moment, energy that would make us pay attention and be outstanding enough to document.
Now, to defend this idea of an interactive style in my direction, I have to know how to receive, use, and conduct energy and creativity offered to me by the actors, creative people and technicians working in my films.
Why do you finally decide to show Lia’s work life outside of the house?
This is the most controversial film sequence; writing for the purists and the unity of time and space that suggests the film is a dramaturgical error, but I long ago gave up self-imposing rules of this type. At that moment in the story no one wants to leave the house to see what will continue to happen between Tania and Manuel but Claudia and I wanted was to go for a walk to Chinatown to explore Lia’s mood.
Ironically, this sequence works like a Chinese box; breaking the story with the expectations that have been generated with all of the mystery and lack of Western psychological explanation that usually make for tall tales. Why is it that Lia does what the client asks and what are the consequences for the story? We do not know and I do not care to elucidate. It is a beautiful mystery; sometimes in life you do not ask what and why you do and that may or may not have consequences. I think we often forget that films talk about life, and life tends not to ask for any explanations sometimes.
Are you trying to hint at anything with the relationship between Manuel and Lia? (She is a working woman and he stays at home all day; however she says that when he would hug her it was so tight she felt her bones would break.) Is love enough to sustain that kind of relationship?
Manuel’s love is everything to Lia and she does not need to explain it to live it with life-long intensity. We are the spectators, the voyeurs of that story, and we need to explain why. I think Manuel is the most complex and difficult-to-define character; he looks like a crackpot, a pushover, immature, sometimes a jerk, but is slowly discovering a sensitivity and attitude to life. Lia already knows it and Tania discovers it eventually. Towards the end of his song, he defines himself: a giraffe, one that has no voice because his voice is so different than the rest that men do not listen. To answer your question, I think that love is never enough and in the case of Lia she confronts him with such intensity that far from sinking, it carries his passion.
When you envisioned the film, did you have any parameters for the sex scenes or did you let the actors decide what they were comfortable with?
The first thing we shot was the sex scene between Lia and Manuel when the film begins. For me it was essential to create comfort between the actors and crew; nudity and sex had to be natural, everyday. Also, it had to be with the agreement of Claudia and my complicity with her was crucial.
How long did the shooting process take?
We shot in 15 days. It was something that we made sure from design and production through a small team that was multifunctional and highly concentrated. If one knows how to shorten preparation times from one shot to another, and this is something that digital cinema allows, you can shoot in half the time that we were accustomed to with the poor production times the analog film demanded.
What’s next for you?
Our new film is called Venice and has just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to a very good reception from the public and critics. This is the synopsis: Monica, Violet and Mayelin work in a beauty salon. On payday they go out to buy a dress for one of them, starting an unexpected journey into the depths of the Havana nightlife. At dawn, exhausted and penniless, they start dreaming of opening a beauty shop of their own, which they will call Venice.
Do you have anything to add?
I am very happy to present Giraffes in Trinidad and Tobago. We are Caribbean islands and it’s important for us to know more about each other. At the very least, I make films for that, to expose and to learn.
The final ttff/14 screening of Giraffes takes place on Friday 26 September, 8.30pm at MovieTowne, Port of Spain. The director will be present.