Sons of Cuba is set in the legendary Havana City Boxing Academy, a boarding school that hand picks nineyear – old boys, and turns them into the best boxers in the world. The boys’ duties extend beyond the ring: they are groomed not only as world-class fighters, but also to be international symbols for their country, dubbed by Castro: “the standard-bearers of the Revolution”. The documentary follows the stories of three young hopefuls through eight dramatic months of training and schooling as they prepare for the biggest event of their lives: Cuba’s National Boxing Championship for Under-12’s.
The Havana City Boxing Academy is home to Cristian (a natural boxing talent), Junior (former ballet dancer turned compassionate boxer), and Santos (musician and lover of pastries who struggles to keep his fighting weight). These three are among a group of 25 working-class boys aged between nine and 11, chosen from hundreds of young hopefuls to attend this weekly boarding school. The state pays for their accommodation, training and lodging, and through a strict training regime, starts them on the road to becoming the best boxers in the world. If they stick at it they have a good chance of making it to the top. In Sons of Cuba, by British filmmaker Andrew Lang, we follow the struggles of these boys, both in and out of the ring.
Is the film a portrait of sacrifice, social hardship and political indoctrination? Or is it about a country full of love and passion and the rewards of dedication to the cause, be that sport or communism? It will depend on your viewpoint before going in, but it is probably a mixture of the two.
Up every day at 4 am for two hours of intense training before school and more training afterwards, home only at weekends, we follow ‘our team’ in the months preceding the under-12s National Championships. The sheer physical fitness and talent of these boys is enough to fill any lazy film viewer with awe, but it is their charm and their dedication to their families and to each other that really blows one away. The respect and love given in all directions – from coach Yosvani to the boys in his charge, from the boys to their mothers, between the boys, and even between the rival coaches – is often powerful enough to induce tears, both on screen and off. Tears flow too from hunger, from bloody noses, from sore heads and most of all at the disappointment of not making the final team of ten that go to the Championships. The emotional highs and lows, the beauty of the boys and the cinematography, the inevitable final boxing match with parents, teammates and coach cheering along, all make this more of a drama – with a political element – than a boxing documentary might initially suggest.
Shot in 2006, Fidel Castro is still in power as the film begins, and it opens with his words: “The revolution must concentrate on sport. It is of the outmost importance. Youngsters will be selected from the masses and given the best possible training. On the front line of sport the Revolution will advance.” Sport has always been Castro’s passion: he watches it so avidly, he admits, that he sometimes forgets to take his medication. He visits training camps and sports schools, and spends time with successful sportsmen and women. He established the grand International School of Sports and Physical Education, presently with 1500 students from developing countries and Cuba, all studying for free. Cuban high-performance athletes can receive free tuition to become professors of sports. This is how Yosvani, the boy’s coach, learnt his trade, while many others now work in developing countries in the same way as the more wellknown Cuban doctors. At the last Olympics, eight countries had Cuban trainers for their boxing teams.
Since 1990, the Cuban government has spent more than $80 million per year on Olympic sport. In one of his speeches, Castro summed up the results of this investment: “What has Cuba’s role been in the Olympic Games? What has it achieved? What has been the fruit of our efforts to promote healthy clean sports? At the 1972 Olympics, we finished 14th among 122 countries. In 1980, in Moscow we finished 4th among 81 countries; in 1992, and in Atlanta, in 1996 we finished 8th among 197 countries. Could anyone refute these figures?” In the most recent Games, Cuba obtained a total of 24 medals – a higher number than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean.
There is of course a problem: this success has now become a route to freedom and riches through defection – with professional status abroad, large amounts of money can be earned. This happens because Cuba remains the only country in the world where professional sport is not practised (although it is subsidised). During the shooting of Sons of Cuba three Olympic boxers defected to the US, and the reactions of the boys and the coach is one of real shock. That these former heroes should betray everything the revolution has provided them with is almost too much for these young patriots to believe. Director Andrew Lang tells DOX that since the defection of these three there has been a stream of defections to Miami, boxers arriving one way or another in search of a better life.
But one wonders when a deeper understanding might begin to cross the boys’ minds. Cristian’s father was a former Olympic and World Champion boxer himself. He now lives in poverty, having lost the car and house he was given many years ago. At the time of filming he appears as one of the main inspirations for his son, the brightest talent at the Academy. Andrew Lang tells DOX that on returning to the island only one year after the end of filming, he could already sense flickers of doubt in the boys’ minds about what the rewards really are for all their sacrifice. At what age does indoctrination stop working? It seems like the answer here might be around 13 or 14 years old.
Meanwhile these ten year olds clearly love their country, truly and deeply one feels. Junior wanders through the streets on his weekend visit home and comments: “Even if Havana is destroyed, it is my city and I love it”. And Cristian proudly shows us a picture of Cuban doctors who have been sent to work abroad, explaining: “That is why our Comandante is so admired all over the world”. In the middle of the film, the boys gather around to hear the announcement that Castro will delegate his position of leader of the party to his brother Raul. The boys sit on the steps afterwards and seem genuinely concerned about Fidel’s health. They also say they are ready to run into the streets, ready to fight if the US dares to attack them.
In the 50 years of the Cuban revolution, few outsiders have been granted access to filming freely within an educational institute. By employing an all- Cuban crew, securing a residency permit, and pretending he was not the director but just helping, Andrew Lang managed to get that permission and access. “I had to report to the sports authorities every two weeks,” he tells DOX, “but the rest was built on trust – the coach knew that if this was a negative film he would lose his job, or worse.” It all seems to have gone well, Lang updates DOX on the latest news from inside Cuba: “The film screened at the Havana Film Festival, where they all saw it for the first time, and loved it. It also won an award from Cuban film critics for best documentary, and it will be distributed (on
DVD) to the hundred-odd cinemas around the country.”
The most disturbing moments in the film involve the intensity of the training, the denial of food to these skinny athletes, the mass chanting of “Mighty Fidel, Beat up the Yanks”, and the moment when a very small child dressed up as Fidel takes to the podium. Their training facilities are not high-tech by any means (sweating under dirty mattresses replaces the saunas of more fancy training facilities), but they have clean and tidy school uniforms, meals of a very basic sort, and the boxing equipment they need. “Before the collapse of the USSR, they would have been given clothes and training gear” says Andrew Lang, “but what with that and the embargo, Cuba simply can’t afford to equip the pupils properly”. So these facilities are not temptation enough to balance out the extreme physical demands on their young bodies through relentless exercise. Their dedication and motivation has to be coming from somewhere else. It does not seem as though riches and celebrity status even cross the minds of Santos, Cristian and Junior. They are not fighting their way out of poverty (unless they plan to defect one day, which is not yet an option for them).
So why do they do it? They talk of the beauty of the sport, the ambition to be someone some day, and of their mothers who they want to provide for when they grow up. Cristian’s mother is a woman of admirable family values, lovingly encouraging her sons to go for something they can work for, not to become vagabonds. She recounts the ‘Special Period’ during which Cristian was born, when they did not have any food to eat, and she told her small children that: “Outside these walls nobody has to know what is happening. Keep your heads high”. One wonders if that is a metaphor for much of Cuba. Before turning to boxing, Junior’s motivation was originally for ballet (another area of Cuban excellence – Carlos Acosta is a shining example in the West; he trained from the age of nine at the Cuban Ballet School and then defected). Junior boxes for his family, for Fidel, and for all Cubans. Santos, on the other hand, struggles to find the motivation to sacrifice all that is demanded of him. Mostly because he finds it so very hard being hungry all the time.
The film ends , as perhaps all great sporting movies do, with the National Championships, our hero Cristian winning gold, the Havana City Boxing Academy reclaiming the team title, and Cristian’s dad, the former champ, being so moved and proud of his son that he not only cries, but truly believes the boy can be greater than he once was. So we should probably be looking out for the name of Cristian Martinez in future Olympics. The only thing that might stop him is politics. American policy has begun to allow inter-personal visits. Cuban musicians are touring the US. Golf courses are to be built on the island to attract more tourists. The
demand for more rapid change from within might increase. The Cuban leadership might crumble. But then again, people have been saying those kinds of things for 50 years – meanwhile the Cuban boxers keep winning Olympic gold.