Pavel Giroud on What Inspired His Film About a Cuban Boxer Trying to Escape an AIDS Hospital

For its opening night film, the Havana Film Festival New York showed Pavel Giroud‘s AIDS drama El Acompañante (The Companion). Set in the late 1980s, the film follows disgraced boxing star Horacio Romero (played by Latin Grammy winner Yotuel Romero) as he gets assigned to a military-run sanatorium where the Cuban government has interned all of its HIV-infected citizens. He’s to be a “companion” to Daniel (Armando Miguel); he’s instructed to shadow him and report any ill-advised conduct to his superiors.

But Romero is no snitch. He quickly develops a friendly rapport with Daniel, turning a blind eye to his indiscretions, and inadvertently finds himself training again in hopes of finding his way back to glory. It’s the Rocky/Dallas Buyers Club mashup you didn’t know could be made. That the film treats the Los Cocos sanatorium inmates as peripheral to Romero’s story suggests that Giroud didn’t want to, as he’s stated in other interviews, come down hard on any side of a contentious argument about these controversial sanatoriums. After all, the very process of corralling HIV patients and allowing them only minimal forms of freedom is precisely what Daniel is rallying against as he plots his escape. But the film turns unexpectedly into a sports redemptive drama, more attuned to the companion in its title than to these provocative issues at hand.

Nevertheless, the depiction of these sanatoriums and of a predominantly heterosexual HIV positive population (with attendant homophobic language for authenticity, one presumes) mean that Giroud is mining new ground. This explains, perhaps, why after the HFFNY Opening Night screening he was awarded with honors (including one from Brooklyn Borough mayor, Eric L. Adams) celebrating his film as “helping educate the audience about AIDS.”

Visibly moved by these laurels, Giroud, and his leading man Romero sat down for a Q&A at the Directors Guild Theatre. Here are some highlights from their chat.

On How The Companion Took Shape

“What had introduced HIV into Cuba were these straight males who had been fighting in Africa, who had been at the forefront of this fight for revolution.”

Giroud: The idea began after reading a newspaper article in Granma, the official paper in Cuba. The piece had published all these UN statistics about the countries with the highest index for HIV prevention. What stuck out to me was that Cuba, a country with such a highly sexual culture — so promiscuous, even — and which, back then, didn’t have that much information about HIV prevention, had somehow managed to keep its HIV epidemic contained to that degree. And so I started researching — I had as a reference the Los Cocos sanatorium, but it was much too vague. So when I started researching in earnest, I got to the heart of the matter. And that’s how I discovered that, while in the rest of the world, AIDS had targeted mostly the gay community, what had introduced the virus into Cuba were these straight males who had been fighting in Africa — in Congo, in Angola, in Mozambique — who had been at the forefront of this fight for revolution. That was very interesting to me. So I knew what I wanted to say, what kind of theme I wanted to deal with. But I hadn’t found the story. And that’s really what you need, right?

That’s when I found the figure of the “companion.” And I said, that’s my lead, there’s my story. I started working with two collaborators who were going to produce the film: Alejandro Brugués who’d directed Juan of the Dead and Pierre Edelman, who’s worked, over his long career with people like David Lynch and Ken Loach. Together we wrote the first draft, over six years ago. That’s how long I’ve been working with this project. And then the story kept shifting and changing. But the core of the film, that stayed the same throughout. We workshopped the script at a lot in a couple of writing labs. I got to work with great screenwriters, including Vicente Leñero and Senel Paz.

On Shooting Those Boxing Scenes

Giroud: Well, the first thing I did was rent and watch all of the boxing films I could. Mostly, you know, to not repeat what was already out there. But then, it’s funny because I read that Scorsese had spent almost six weeks shooting all the boxing scenes in Raging Bull. I just had to laugh. I knew that I could barely ask my producer for one! She said to me: you have six hours. And we did. We shot those in six hours. And the way we did that was to really rely on Yotuel; to train him as a boxer.

“I really wanted to learn how to be a Cuban boxer because there’s a glorious history there.”

Romero: My biggest challenge in taking this role was to let go of my own musical persona and really inhabit the role of “Horacio Romero,” a boxer who’s a bit of a lone wolf. He’s a character who Pavel knew by heart, because he’d worked for long and really lived with him for so many years. But for me, I had to find him myself. And find a way to make him real. Not just in terms of boxing but to find his own language, to give voice to his darker side. That pent up frustration he lives with given that his dream had always eluded him. And well, I think bit by bit, Pavel and I worked together at his home and we found a way to leave Yotuel behind and find this very serious guy.

And for the boxing scenes, I have to say, I really thought I’d get some sort of double, you know? Because, in film everything’s fake, right? No such luck. I had to train and learn how to box like Cuban, punch for punch. Imagine, I told my mom, “I’m gonna be a boxer in two months!” And she was like, “Ay mijo, ay dios mio!” But I had the great luck of training with Héctor Vinent, a two-time Olympic champion, and four-time World champion. A real Cuban treasure. And it wasn’t just boxing that I learnt from him. But his body language, his way of speaking. Lots of little things. I really wanted to learn how to be a Cuban boxer because there’s a glorious history there. And really, Romero belongs to that in a way; he’s not doing it for the money. All he cares about are the Olympics. He fights for his country, for his country’s ideals.

On the History of HIV Prevention in Cuba

Giroud: The sanatorium as you see it in the film, under this regime, was in place from 1986 to 1988. During these years they were under military rule. But then they were handed to the Department of Public Health. It still, nevertheless, followed this strict rule that patients were only allowed to leave one day a week with a companion. Once the Berlin Wall came down, and the socialist world sort of came crashing down, the Cuban government found itself alone, without some necessary help, and it was unsustainable for it to continue this work. And so they decided to open up the doors of these places. But then something unexpected happened; many stayed. They wanted to stay. They weren’t ready, really, to start all over. And to face a society that wasn’t ready for them. To this day the sanatorium still stands. It’s still a place devoted to the fight against HIV. It’s an education center, in a way; it teaches patients how to live with HIV. And there are still people from the ’80s who are living there. I talked a lot with one patient (#20), who first checked in back in 1986. He lives with a female nurse whom he met there, and who’s now HIV positive as well.

The amount of contradictions in this place is something that appealed to me. There’s been a lot of criticism about these centers. But then again, lots of people who were there were very happy. There’s something to be said about exchanging your freedom for high quality care, especially back then. For example, I talked to a Venezuelan director, Mariana Rondón, who studied in Cuba. She told me about one of her friends who got diagnosed and sent to one of these centers. But the students over at the Film School organized some sort of protest to get him out. She worked hard to get him out and sent to Venezuela. But then, just a few months later, she began trying to get him back to Cuba; in that short a time, given the poor treatment he’d been getting in Venezuela, he was pretty much dying.

This Q&A has been translated from Spanish by the author.