Naomi Shea reviews Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s film about Elián González, a five-year-old Cuban boy plucked from the Florida coast in 1999, and how the fight over his future sparked a flashpoint for simmering US and Cuban tensions.
A montage of blurred and pixelated archival footage moves us through a hieroglyphic narrative of human survival; handmade rafts struggle against the ferocious expanse of an unidentifiable sea; dozens of stooped figures emerge from dark waters onto unnamed land. Although the opening sequence of Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s latest documentary Elián (2017) reflects upon a particular time in the fraught history of the Americas, during which droves of Cubans fled their native land for the promise of citizenship and stability in the United States, these images uncannily echo the humanitarian crisis of our contemporary time, captivating the perilous and largely anonymous journeys of thousands of refugees and migrants today.
Elián’s story is at once wholly of its time—the metamorphosis of a five-year-old boy into the embodiment of US-Cuban relations at the turn of the century—and simultaneously a universal narrative that echoes our contemporary age, warning of the dangers and toxicity of political power and symbolism on individual human autonomy and self-determination. Elián deftly synopsizes the breadth of Cuban history in the aftermath of the Revolution, offering a journalistically sound insight into the tensions underlying the fledgling country’s break from its longstanding US affiliations, which prompted many Cubans to journey north to Florida, enticed by the prosperity and opportunities offered by America.
Elián begins with the reenactment of the eponymous child’s rescue by two fishermen off the coast of Florida following the death of his mother, who had attempted the journey from Cuba to America on a handmade raft. Elián was subsequently put into the care of his Cuban-Miami relatives, prompting a custody battle between them and his father, who lived in Cuba and requested his son’s immediate return. The familial tensions that played out between Elián’s relatives were refracted momentously throughout America and Cuba, whereby Elián rose almost instantaneously to become the symbol of each country’s respective political and national agenda. Crucially, the Elián case emerged alongside the contemporaneous American presidential campaign of 2000, in which the clash of political egos and patriotic extremism provided a vicious and ulterior backdrop to the child’s custody battle.
The documentary unfolds through an interplay between contemporary interviews with Elián himself, his family members and key figures involved in the case, as well as an extensive array of archival footage from the period surrounding the event. At the forefront of this archival material is the obsessive and penetrative presence of the American media, paralleled with campaign footage of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Bush and an uncannily prescient speech from Donald Trump, who each engage with the Elián case for their own respective political advantage. Ninety-miles from the North American coast Fidel Castro leads an alternative but no less propagandistic public campaign that uses Elián as a symbolic vehicle for Cuban patriotism and anti-American rhetoric. And caught between these two antagonistic and egocentric powers is a five-year-old child who has just experienced his mother’s death and remains forcibly separated from his father in the name of political and national identity.
Germinating across a period of five years, the making of Elián also traversed two momentous events in the political landscapes of both the US and Cuba—the death of Castro on November 25, 2016 and the election of Trump to office on January 20, 2017. These events inflect the documentary with an urgent immediacy, balancing the reflective and historicizing tone of the film with a pertinent relevancy for the political and humanitarian crises we face today. Most evocative are the interviews with Elián, now in his early twenties and living in Cuba, whose profound humility and collectedness belie the trauma and notoriety of his early childhood.
In the course of the documentary Elián admits that he is yet to tell his own story, because the narrative recounted by Elián himself and the many other participants in the film is not his own. Elián’s childhood became the embodiment of a particular moment in US-Cuban political relations, the narrative of an overwrought struggle for power between these nations and a mythical symbol for the Cuban population and Miami-Cuban community’s grapple to negotiate their respective cultural and national identities. The cult of personality and superstitious mysticism frame these chaotic scrambles for power and self-determination. Questions of fatherhood, nationhood, religious belief and media fame orbit around the various characters of the film, including Castro, an assemblage of American (male) political figures, and Elián himself, who simultaneously acknowledges his unequivocal symbolic power for the Cuban people, as well as attempting to live below the firing line of stardom.
Above all, Elián explores how the political is always personal, while warning of the dangers of subsuming the personal under the political. And within this, Elián attempts to renounce his status as the miracle, prodigal son that has been inflicted upon him by both American and Cuban society, in order to live freely and humanly.
Elián screened as part of the IFI Documentary Festival 2017 (September 27th to October 1st)