In the first week of Glasgow Film Festival, director Iciar Bollain and screenwriter Paul Laverty presented their latest film Yuli, a vibrant biopic about Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. The screening on February 23 was followed by a Q&A with Bollain, Laverty, and Acosta himself.
Few people get to see the story of their life unfold before them like Carlos Acosta did. The world-renowned ballet dancer from Havana is at the centre of Yuli, a hugely enjoyable and narratively inventive biopic based on Acosta’s memoir, No Way Home. The latest film by Spanish director Iciar Bollain is as much about a black dancer’s rapid ascent to the peak of international fame as it is a study of cultural roots, family relationships and displacement.
Moments into the opening sequence – the centre of Havana with all its colour and vivacity – it is already undeniable that Yuli is a film made for the big screen. Unlike some of Bollain’s earlier work marked by social realism – Bollain was no doubt influenced by early collaborator Ken Loach – these images burst with colour, and delight with smooth cinematography and flawless mise-en-scène. But its visual gloss does not seem to be merely a superficial tool aimed at drawing in big audiences, but rather to aid the performative beauty of the film as a whole.
Yuli is mainly told through flashbacks, supplemented with a series of fully fledged-out dance sequences featuring the real Carlos Acosta and an ensemble of professional ballet dancers. These moments are a stunning display of the moving body, its translation of emotion into dance. The fact that they are not merely placed into the film without narrative context but rather spun into the very fabric of the story itself, makes them all the more engaging.
“Papa, I don’t want to be a dancer. I want to be normal.”
“Too bad, partner.”
The dynamic between young Carlos Acosta and his father Pedro is a red thread that runs through the whole film. The portrayal of Pedros Acosta is one of the most intriguing components this film has to offer. Where, at first, he seems hard and masculine in the traditional sense imbued in his culture, we are surprised to find that he does not suppress but rather support his son’s talent for ballet. He is unfazed by the recurring hateful comments directed at his son by young boys; all he wants is for his son to tap into his talent.
Pedro can be a tender and compassionate guide and yet, his overflowing fatherly love also manifests in patterns of violence and abuse. We see a black man driven by the need to see his son succeed, not least because “350 years of slavery runs through our veins”. He, rightfully, wants to see a historical imbalance restored but is blind to his son’s individual needs in the process. Pedro is, of course, not merely a fictional figure but based on the real life Pedro, and so it was interesting to hear Carlos Acosta speak of his (late) father without resentment in the post-screening Q&A, even naming him as the main catalyst for his present-day success.
Acosta’s story begins and wraps up in his native Cuba, and indeed, there persists in this film a strong sense of always returning home. There is a tension between the global and the national, moving outward and returning to the source. Before the screening, the film’s script writer Paul Laverty described the Glasgow Film Theatre as the place that taught him to look outward, and look beyond what he knew. This notion of crossing borders with the aim of exploring and informing permeates much of his work, including Yuli. Having worked alongside director Ken Loach on a number of films, their collaborations have tackled both national (I, Daniel Blake) and distinctly transnational subject matter (Carla’s Song), always foregrounding socio-political struggles. While this latest film isn’t at all Loachian in visual style, it very much retains its social consciousness and political message. Although it is focalised through personal history, Yuli never forgets to return to a communal and (trans)national element.
Yuli makes dance out of collective and individual history, it translates personal and cultural emotion into movement. We barely need the English subtitles to grasp at messages here since feeling, both in film and in dance, does not need the spoken word to become visible. In this way, Iciar Bollain’s latest film draws us into the life of Carlos Acosta with narrative inventiveness and visual beauty. The hope remains that this results in a desire to educate ourselves about places like Acosta’s native Cuba, to delve into their past and present, and their people. When aesthetics become action, this film has achieved its purpose.