Review of Irish Film @ IFI Documentary Festival: Elián

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)



Review of Irish Film @ IFI Documentary Festival: It Tolls For Thee



Sarah Cullen rings the bell for It Tolls For Thee, Andrew Gallimore’s film about Irishwoman Mary Elmes, an unsung heroine who saved hundreds of children from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and from the concentration camps of World War II.  


While introducing It Tolls For Thee at the IFI’s 2017 Documentary Film Festival, Paddy Butler (the journalist who broke the news of Elmes’ story in The Irish Times in 2012) described Mary Elmes as “on a par with Oskar Schindler.” Yet while Schindler is a household name,  Elmes has been obscured from history for decades. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2013 that she was posthumously honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel for her work during World War II. Elmes’ story is unquestionably one that deserves to be told, and director Andrew Gallimore, along with journalists, historians, concentration camp survivors, Nazi hunters, and Elmes’ own children, admirably illustrate Elmes’ hidden story of bravery.


Narrated by Winona Ryder, It Tolls for Thee takes the long-abandoned Spanish concentration camp of Rivesaltes as its central focus. It was here – a refugee-turned-concentration camp – in which Elmes worked tirelessly throughout the Second World War to rescue Jewish children from the trains set to transport them to Auschwitz. Ronald and Mario Friend, two brothers still alive today thanks to Elmes’ bravery, also relate their experiences in the camp. This space takes on further resonances when we learn about the efforts of local authorities to destroy documents outlining Rivesaltes’ true function during the war: had such an attempt been successful, Elmes’ story – and the stories of those she rescued – might have been entirely erased.


Elmes, born in 1908, was a Cork native whose studies took her to Trinity College Dublin and on to the London School of Economics. While she excelled in her fields of French and Spanish, winning medals and scholarships, she chose to move away from academic pursuits at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, travelling to Almería to join the relief effort. During the Second World War Elmes devoted herself to the children interred in Rivesaltes, working tirelessly to feed and clothe them and risked her life multiple times by removing children from the camp, hiding them in remote villages in the Pyreneés. In 1943 she was jailed by the Gestapo, but simply returned to her aid work upon her release.


Despite the film purporting to be about Mary Elmes, it is in many ways the story of conflict and hardship in French and Spanish Catalonia in the early twentieth century: there is at least the same amount (if not more) time spent illustrating the violence and migration across the Pyrenées during the Spanish Civil War and World War II as there is regarding Elmes. It Tolls for Thee can hardly be faulted for this, however. Considering the cover-up conducted to hide the horrors of Rivesaltes, one can only marvel at the tremendous job Gallimore and his team have done in piecing together the all-but-forgotten history of one of Ireland’s bravest citizens. What we do learn about Elmes paints the picture of a personable and self-less individual, something which is reflected in the cinematography: we glimpse Elmes mainly in black and white photos documenting her time in Spanish orphanages and hospitals. However, in contrast to her surroundings colour has been added to Elmes’ image, giving the viewer a clear focus on her, and providing a humanising touch.


Indeed, It Tolls for Thee demonstrates just how much has been obscured in the chaos and espionage – not to mention the revisionism – of the wars that swept across Europe and left so much devastation in their wake. While it took Ronald and Mario Friend almost seventy years to discover that it was “Mrs. Elmes” who rescued them from Rivesaltes, there are undoubtedly many survivors who will never know who saved them. Ultimately, we learn, it is not even certain how many children Elmes saved, although the number is believed to be in the hundreds. What shines through in It Tolls for Thee is her unwavering commitment to the children in her care in the face of incredible adversity.

It Tolls for Thee screened as part of the IFI Documentary Festival 2017 (September 27th to October 1st) 



IFI Documentary Film Festival 2017: Sunniva O’Flynn & David O’Mahony