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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018 Competition

Icíar Bollaín • Director

“We made a firm commitment to include entire dance numbers in the film”


- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2018: Icíar Bollaín trained her camera on the figure of Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta to create Yuli, which recreates his life, from his humble beginnings to his huge success

Icíar Bollaín  •  Director
(© Lorenzo Pascasio)

Madrilenian filmmaker Icíar Bollaín is currently competing in the Official Section of the San Sebastián Film Festival for the third time. While in 2003 her film Take My Eyes [+see also:
film profile
went home with two acting awards for Luis Tosar and Laila Marull, this time the ace up her sleeve is called Yuli [+see also:
film review
interview: Icíar Bollaín
film profile
and is based on the biography of Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. It is a co-production between Spain, Germany, the UK and Cuba, the screenplay for which was again written by her partner, Paul Laverty, as was the case with her previous titles.

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Cineuropa: What is a Madrid-born director like you doing shooting a very Cuban film like this?
Icíar Bollaín:
It’s a biography that Paul was offered to do an adaptation of, and it seemed like a beautiful story to me: a kid from a poor neighbourhood in Havana, who doesn’t even want to be a ballet dancer, ends up being the star of the Royal Ballet. Paul started researching, and he found out that the surname Acosta comes from a plantation that had slaves: Carlos is the great grandson of a slave, and he ends up dancing in London. He also discovered the conflictual relationship that Carlos had with his father, which is the backbone of the whole story, and in spite of everything, Carlos dedicates his book to him. And then there’s Cuba, which is always explosive. We made a clear commitment: to blend fiction and dance, as there were various issues that were narrated through the dancing, and that was really beautiful – working with musician Alberto Iglesias as well as with choreographer María Rovira. The challenge was to avoid losing the viewer: we jump right into the dancing, but the audience takes our hand and follows us. Something that seemed great on paper was actually a gamble: how do you film the dances? Where do you position yourself to watch them dance?

How did you prepare yourself for such a narrative challenge? By watching Bob Fosse films?
Yes, and Billy Elliot. I realised that in a lot of those movies, unless they’re musicals, there is hardly any dancing; dance is a pretext, as is the case in Black Swan. We made a firm commitment in Yuli to see entire dance numbers, so I did casting sessions with ballet dancers, guys who could actually perform: the camera dances alongside them because there are no cuts and no trickery.

The film also tackles the fact that you have to leave your homeland behind if you want a taste of victory...
That happens with any extremely high-level discipline: if you want to be an Olympic sportsperson, you have to go to the Olympic Games, where you are pitted against the best the world has to offer. These ballet companies constitute the elite of the dance world: to see if you’re among the very best, that’s where you have to go. And Carlos was a man who was very attached to his homeland, and he used to find it hard to travel: in fact, his autobiography is called No Way Home, as he found it really difficult to leave Cuba.

Did the fact that part of the action unfolds in London help to secure the European co-production with Cuba?
Yes, the project was instigated in the UK, and then we came on board; we then talked about the possibility of filming it in Spanish, which Carlos liked a great deal, as it’s his language, and afterwards, the Spanish production company came on board, followed by the German one. Here in Spain, we hardly know him, but in the UK he’s a superstar: he’s been dancing with the Royal Ballet for 17 years, and he’s always popping up in the most popular media.

Why does his childhood take up so much running time in the film’s structure?
Right from the start, Paul was fascinated by the burden of childhood, which is when we are moulded into who we are. Therefore, he had to decide where to focus his attention, and he chose his relationship with his father. At the end, Carlos says: “I’m your son, I am what I soaked up as a child, even though I’m successful all over the world.” That’s where the title of the film, Yuli, comes from, as it’s the nickname they used for him at home, while the rest of the world knew him as Carlos Acosta. Who are we? Well, we’re what we were, what we began our lives as: that’s what defines us.

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(Translated from Spanish)

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