Day of the Flowers is the new film starring Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield as two Scottish sisters who travel to Cuba to scatter their father’s ashes in the land he loved. The Cuban-born Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta plays a local dance teacher who helps the women out when they get in trouble. We caught up with Charity to talk Caribbean socialist idylls, Mr Acosta and the exhibition of photographs taken by everyone involved in the project.
Acting on both stage and screen, Charity has played Marianne Dashwood in Andrew Davies’s BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility as well as The Cherry Orchard at The National Theatre. She studied at the Oxford School of Drama between 2000 and 2003, and according to Hello! magazine is now “famous for being one of the hottest young talents on British TV.”
Landing in Cuba was a shock for Charity. It was her first visit to the country and it didn’t help that she had just been filming in Los Angeles, where everything is very well organised and luxurious. She explains, “while everything is very equal within their society, it feels like the living standards aren’t very high compared to our own lives.”
This lack of resources affected the filming. The team took out some equipment from the UK, but inevitably they had to use some local facilities too. This included 1950s films buses and huge generators that were 40 or 50 years old, among other unreliable bits of kit. The practicality of the Cuban people was invaluable when it came to repairing things that had obviously seen better decades. Charity recalls that people were, “wonderful at problem-solving. So, while the film-making facilities aren’t the same as in the UK, there is a real make-do-and-mend culture… if anything went wrong they would simply fix it up.”
Filming was also complicated by Day of the Flowers‘ biggest star, who was going back and forth between his work as a screen actor, and his main job as a ballet dancer. “Carlos Acosta was taking the English National Ballet to Cuba for the first time,” Charity explains. “It was an incredible moment in the history of Cuban ballet, to have their star ballet dancer who is one of the few people to have left Cuba and become incredibly successful internationally, for him to be able to bring his company from London.”
Charity says that although he did not have much experience as an actor, Carlos was a natural in front of the camera. “From the first second of seeing him in front of the camera’s lens you know that he was totally inhabiting the role. He is a natural and very truthful and subtle.” Part of his skill, she says, is to be able to rein in his performance. “He does these huge ballet performances with adoring crowds from all over the world, but for him to be able to boil that energy down to something that is so genuine, is extraordinary.”
There is a moment in the film where Carlos Acosta’s character Ernesto expresses his love for the country, and this warmth for Cuba is felt throughout the film. Charity explains that this feeling starts with the writer, Eirene Houston, who knows Cuba well. She has been visiting the country for years and is currently making a documentary The Cuban Way about Son, one of the traditional forms of Cuban dance.
Not only does Acosta love Cuba, Cubans are also clearly proud of him. And yet, Charity is keen to point out that pride in their successful compatriot does not manifest itself in the same way celebrity culture is found in the UK. Instead, “it was almost as if he was a family member,” she explains. “People would come up to him and say ‘Well done my son.’ – there were no screaming crowds.”
“The Cuban people are incredibly warm and creative, and musical and giving,” says Charity. Her positive experience on the island led to a spin-off project – a exhibition of photographs taken by the cast and crew that she is curating. She’s been through thousands of photographs to make her selection.
Altogether there are photographs from almost 25 people; some are official stills and behind the scenes shots, but the bulk of the work is made up of street scenes and portraits of ordinary Cubans. Some of the highlights include contributions from actor Christopher Simpson, the official stills from James Layton and the pictures taken by his dad, the Director of Photography, Vernon Layton.
Day of the Flowers is out in UK cinemas now, the Day of the Flowers Cuba photography exhibition starts on Wednesday 4th December and runs until Sunday 8th at 35 Marylebone High Street, London. Find more information here.