Tuesday, 6 July 2010

'Sons of Cuba' review: a brilliant and moving documentary on sporting life under Castro...

Set in 2006 'Sons of Cuba' sets the lives of three "Under-12" athletes at Havana's Boxing Academy against a backdrop of political uncertainty and change in Cuba, as an unwell Castro allows his younger brother Raúl to take over power. There is genuine concern and sadness on the faces of the youngsters as they gather around a television to hear the special news bulletin explaining events. With genuine affection the children refer to him as the "Comandante" and they read stories about his past exploits in colourful picture books as part of school.

There is a refreshing lack of cynicism amongst the young boxers as they refer to each other as "comrade athlete" and hug after bouts. When three champion boxers defect for the United States (where they stand to make more money by going professional) there is very real sadness and betrayal on the faces of every Cuban interviewed. A father tells us that one of the men lived on his street and was a role-model for his son, speaking of him in a tone and manner usually reserved for sex offenders or child murderers. When Castro fails to make a public appearance due to his poor health, the concerned children declare that they will fight the US if they dare attack now.

But if the US are for many Cubans something of a pantomime villain there are small signs that the island has not entirely escape cultural imperialism. One of the boxers wears a Nike jacket, whilst other T-shirts carry familiar slogans and images like "NYC". When the children exercise by pretending to row a boat, one of them shouts "lets row all the way to Florida!" British film-maker Andrew Lang's documentary may be understandably light on actual overt political dissent, but there is something bubbling under the surface.

Not least of all when we meet one junior athlete's father, a former Olympic and World Champion boxer who now lives in a run-down, one-room shack in quiet anonymity. He speaks well of Castro and fondly remembers the time the leader gave him a medal to honour his achievements. But there is more than a twinge of regret in his eyes. "They gave me a car and a house, but the car stopped working long ago and now I live here", he says before thinking and asking "it's not right me living like this is it?" Who is to say what is right and wrong here. How should a retired athlete live? But we imagine that he would be living more comfortably in the US and we are left to wonder if this is the fate that awaits the next generation of champions. At any rate, it contextualises the actions of those who defect.

Cuba has supplied more Olympic champion boxers than any other country and, beyond all the politics, this is chiefly what the documentary explores. How has this relatively small, poor and isolated nation bested the biggest and the wealthiest time and time again? 'Sons of Cuba' does a great job of explaining this. We see the children's daily routine as they get up at 4am to begin training. We see how, even at such a young age, they have their diets strictly monitored and controlled. We are shown the national championships they compete in with students from boxing academies throughout Cuba, which are hugely competitive. And whilst boxing is an individualistic sport, we see how the Cubans are encouraged to see it as a team game, playing in groups for their school. They are instilled with a fiery will to win, but also a huge amount of respect for their fellow fighters.

I am not a fan of boxing and know almost nothing about it, but this human drama, so full of poignant moments and extraordinary characters. The young boxers are so wise beyond their years that you forget they are the "under-12s". There are many scenes of tears, but these are shared with the mothers, the fathers and the coach. They are all on an emotional roller-coaster, hopeful that these young children will someday be able to compete at the Olympics. But, as the former champion tells us in his shack, "sport is a flickering moment". What the future holds for these young stars we do not yet know. But whatever happens, 'Sons of Cuba' is a moving and beautiful documentary that works on many levels. Equally good as a sporting story or as a socio-political document from an interesting time in Cuban history.

'Sons of Cuba' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and can be seen at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse on 13th and 15th of July. Listen out for an upcoming Splendor Podcast on the subject and read Jon's review here.

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