Packing a real punch, Lang’s beautifully crafted, heartfelt documentary Sons of Cuba follows three young boxers against a backdrop of political uncertainty in this unique island-nation.
Children of Fidel’s Revolution by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Cuba has dominated Olympic boxing for the last 30 years, churning out champ after champ and capturing a total of 32 medals. Plucked from the struggle of their daily lives, young talented hopefuls become boarders at one of the state-run training camps. With perhaps unsurprising echoes of the Eastern-European communist sporting factories of the ’70s and ’80s that produced a conveyor-belt of dominant athletes, gymnasts and weightlifters, the lives of these young boys become highly regimented and underscored by self-sacrifice in the pursuit of their ultimate goal: victory in the ring and winning a better life for themselves and their families.
Given unprecedented access to the most prestigious of these academies, Havana City, Lang shadows the lives of Cristian, Santos and Junior and their compellingly committed coach, Yosvani, as they prepare for the National Championships. The pressure to win is overwhelming, Havana City lost its crown to its archrival Matanzas the previous year and regaining the title is all that matters.
The strictness of the Academy’s regime is clear from the outset. The boys are up at 4am every morning to begin their training before heading to school for a full day of class. They are weighed three times a day and put on a strict diet prohibiting any sugar or any of the other usual trappings of a pre-pubescent diet. They are allowed home to see their families once a week only, on a Saturday night. Some boys come to terms with this draconian discipline better than others. Santos struggles with his weight and is always a couple of kilos over his tightly measured limit of 34kg; he slyly admits that his favourite food is pizza. Trying to come to terms with the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, Junior returns to the academy three days late one weekend only to dissolve into sobs when confronted by Yosvani. However, in spite of their occasional slight slips the boys never fail to return to their belief that they are “the standard bearers of the revolution”. “We Cubans are fighting from the moment we are born”, says Junior proudly. Any trace of juvenile behaviour is subjugated to a fierce fidelity to El Comandante, Castro.
Sons of Cuba floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, subtly leaving much unsaid. It never questions the rights and wrongs of young children competing in such a violent sport. Equally, the paradox that these pint-sized patriotic comrades who describe themselves as “pioneers for communism” are fighting so hard and sacrificing so much to escape a life they wouldn’t have to live in any other country hits the audience full-on in the face but appears not to strike neither the boys nor their families. When the news comes that three of Cuba’s recent Olympic champions have turned professional and defected to the US, the sadness is palpable. This has the boys on the ropes but it does not dim their determination to win. Lang again chooses to remain at a distance – no judgement is passed.
The filmmakers clearly developed a rapport of trust with these generally guarded youngsters. The most touching scenes are the one-on-one conversations with the camera during which Santos’ difficulty in denying himself the foods he craves contrasts with Cristian’s overriding commitment to his goal of emulating his father by becoming World and Olympic Champion. Cristian clearly has the talent, at times the camera fails to keep pace with his lightning fast punches. Today, however his father lives in a shack and has only tattered, yellowing photo albums to remind him of his glory days hobnobbing even with El Comandante himself. The audience is once again left to draw its own conclusions.
Lang gives full range to the colours of this vibrant island that US sanctions have tried for so long to drain of its rainbow. And the soundtrack is a riot of lilting Latin lyrics, punchy rap and traditionally inspired ballad, the full spectrum. As the tension mounts, the National Championships approach and history overtakes the boys. Fidel hands power over to his younger brother Raúl unable to preside over the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the revolution and his own 80th birthday. The boys fear for Cuba’s future amid concern that the great American enemy will pick this moment of great sadness to invade.
At the Championships, Cristian wins his final bout and the Havana City Academy is victorious over Matanzas once more. As the winning team is invited to take part in the annual May Day parade, from which Fidel is absent for the first time, the future for these committed combatants and the question of whether Cuba as they know it will exist for long enough to allow them to fulfil their dreams looms large on the island’s horizons. Viva la Revolución!
Sons Of Cuba is released in the UK on 19th March 2010.