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'Elián’: Hot Docs Review

The five year-old boy found floating in the Florida Straits in 1999 tells his side of the story

Dirs. Tim Golden, Ross McDonnell.  UK/US/Ireland/Can, 2017. 105 mins

Now that wily old Fidel Castro has passed away and the roiling seas of Cuban-American relations have – at least temporarily – calmed, it’s a good time to revisit the story of Elián González, the five year-old Cuban boy found floating alone in a rubber tyre by Miami fisherman in November, 1999. His mother had drowned in an attempt to bring him to relatives in the United States; his father wanted him back in Cuba. Elian spent seven months in the middle of a bitter and highly-public custody battle, fanned by hot air of Cuban-American politics in the run-up to the US election.

Elian’s story may have been swallowed by the mists of time now, but this documentary shows how the Florida Straits still have the potential to be deep and treacherous waters indeed

Directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s documentary goes back in time to provide an incisive, involving take on the story: it’s not exactly revelatory, in the manner of OJ: MIA. But it does effectively plunge the viewer back in those choppy seas for an object lesson in how politics can rapidly inflame a situation to dangerous levels, even when both countries had agreed the best place for him was Cuba. We should stand warned.

Picked up by CNN Film/Content Media and backed by the Irish Film Board and Northern Ireland Screen, Elian is assured of wide VOD and terrestrial TV viewership (it’s set for a Storyville outing in the UK). It’s handsomely mounted, with some evocative cinematography from the lens of McDonnell, and should benefit from further festival support after launching in Tribeca and moving on to Hot Docs, though theatrical dates may remain elusive.

As a viewing experience, Elián benefits from the colourful figures involved. Arch-manipulator Fidel, involved every step of the way and playing the US like a harp; attorney general Janet Reno, still smarting after Waco; Elian’s excitable and voluble young cousin Marisleysis; and, on a purely entertaining level, the fisherman Donato, who demonstrated an innate ability to put himself in the middle of events and in front of the camera every step of the way. Now, the adult Elian (“our little Moses”) speaks of his past for the camera - or what he can remember of it.

Elián suffers from the fact that its directors – journalist Golden, who covered the story, and photographer McDonnell - don’t seem to know how to wind up the story, meaning that Elián can drift, long after its point has been made. Veteran Miami commentator Carl Hiaasen is at hand, thankfully, to provide pithy commentary and perspective when others over-reach.

That’s a contrast to its opening sequences, when Elián sets the scene efficiently, if in limited depth. The film-makers start with the dramatic sea rescue and explain in broad strokes the historical background to the hostility of Miami’s Cuban community to Castro after he toppled the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batisto in 1959. Fidel, short of money 40 years later in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and looking for a way to rally his people, was happy to seize on the case of five year-old Elián to revive Cuba’s ‘patria’. Oddly, there’s no mention of Castro’s habit of emptying his prisons out into the Straits of Florida, but Elian’s relatives in Miami had been imprisoned for their opposition to the leader.

Separated from his mother, Elian’s father was a Castro regime supporter who wanted his son back. The scene was set for an increasingly farcical stand-off, played to the camera: highlights included the visit of Elian’s grandmothers from Cuba; TV’s Diane Sawyer “enjoying” playdates with the young, shy boy; the family’s entire block being cordoned off for a prolonged media circus; and figures in the US election race, from Clinton to Bush to Gore, using the controversy in a swing-state to their own political ends. But the situation was more than simply colourful, with the Cuban exile pressure groups ratcheting up the pressure with violent demonstrations.

As these outsized figures from another era come back to prickly life, Elián constantly returns to study the seas between Cuba and the United States, a 330-mile stretch, troublesome and dangerous and loaded with unexpected peril. They brought the world to the brink of war during the missile crisis, and Miami came close to the edge again during the Elian affair. Elian’s story may have been swallowed by the mists of time now, but the camera clearly shows that these still have the potential to be deep and treacherous waters indeed.

Production companies: Finepoint Films, Jigsaw Productions

International sales: Content Media, info@contentmediacorp.com

Producer: Trevor Birney

Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Amy Entelis, Kate Townsend, Mary Callery, Andrew Reid, Greg Phillips, Jonathan Ford, Malken Baird, Brendan J. Byrne, Richard Perello, Stacey Offman

Screenplay: Tim Golden

Cinematography: Ross McDonnell

Editors: Michael J. Palmer, Hannah Vanderlan

Music: McKenzie Stubbert

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