Eye For Film >> Movies >> Sons Of Cuba (2009) Film Review
Sons Of Cuba
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
There's something about boxing that makes it the ideal ‘cinematic sport’. Perhaps it’s the elemental nature of one-to-one combat, the relatively restricted dimensions of the ring making it easier to film or the fascination of a mindset that can cope with being hurt and hurting someone else as a way of life.
From the great Thirties and Forties melodramas through to Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby it’s produced some gems in the narrative genre and been well-served in the documentary department too. When We Were Kings and its contrasting companion piece Thriller In Manila were as compelling as any fictional drama in detailing the epic story of Muhammad Ali’s two greatest fights.
And I’d have no hesitation in placing Sons Of Cuba alongside both those films. Though the world it evokes is a very different one, it has the same ability to fashion a striking image or coax a telling, poignant testimony from its protagonists that marks a truly-top notch documentary.
It focuses on the state-sponsored boxing academies of Cuba. The country has led the world in amateur boxing for decades, producing Olympic champions with unfailing regularity. And it soon becomes very easy to see why.
Hundreds of boys are selected at primary school age and taken to an academy. Each city has one and the training regime is geared towards the annual championships, where they compete for the national title. Winning the award is a huge honour for the boys and their coaches alike and the most promising fighters are selected for the higher-level academies, to be groomed for a possible Olympic appearance.
The opening scenes of life in the Havana academy make it very clear exactly how tough the regime is. The boys are woken up at 4am for a few hours' training before a not-exactly-hearty breakfast. Then it’s exercise and sparring (with the odd break for lessons on the history of the Revolution and the thoughts of Comrade Fidel) until lights out at 9.30. Family visits are limited to a day every weekend and the youngsters are left in no doubt as to what an honour their selection is – or how important it is not to shirk the responsibilities it brings...
On paper it sounds like the worst excesses of the Eastern European ‘athlete factories’ of the Seventies, which produced over-trained and steroid-damaged superbeings who demonstrated communism’s superiority over Western decadence before being thrown on the scrapheap. And the sight of the young lads parroting slogans and exercising like US Marines gave me an uncomfortable flashback to the excellent Johnny Mad Dog, which demonstrated how easy it is to turn boys into fighting machines.
But it soon becomes apparent that the kids do genuinely enjoy being with a school full of mates who share their talent and passion. They want to do well and are aware of how beneficial their success will be to their families. And the training, though harsh, is benevolent. The kids’ problems are talked about, rather than dismissed and head coach Yosvani freely admits that he neglects his own young family because he puts so much into his charges’ successes and failures.
The film focuses on three of them. Christian is the son of a legendary Olympic champion and the very definition of an old head on young shoulders. Santos is a chirpy, popular character but a bit too fond of the pastries. Christian, a former ballet student opting for an early (and radical) career change is quiet, sensitive – and trying to keep some family problems outside the academy, with little success.
As Yosvani grooms them for the championships and a showdown with Havana’s great rivals (and current title-holders) Matanzas I defy anyone not to get caught up in the drama. But the film’s also a character study of three very different boys in a world that’s alien and universal at the same time. We’ve all worried about doing well and fitting in at some stage, and Lang realises that those feelings are, if anything, more intense before you become an adult.
In a pretty short running time, you get to know the boys and their families (traditional and state versions) intimately and you’ll be willing them all on at the end, no matter what your views on the morality of communism - or boxing - happen to be.
It’s certainly not a whitewash. The film doesn’t stint from showing the poverty of Cuba or the grotesque elements of its youth indoctrination policies – a pageant where a nine-year-old Fidel in child-size fatigues and a Nativity-play beard leads a 'freedom or death' chant is the unsettling dark side of the academy’s camaraderie.
But it’s placed in the context of a society that sees itself as surrounded and besieged and is constantly trying to accommodate religious faith and the importance of the Latin American extended family within an avowedly socialist framework. The news of Castro’s failing health and the defection of three Cuban boxers during the course of filming are seismic events in the boys’ perception of their country and the wider world.
Again, like all the best documentaries, the film doesn’t harangue the audience, but strives to present a balanced picture, honestly reflecting its subjects' views, and invites you to make your own judgments. It’s perhaps a little over-ambitious and in trying to explore several themes, leaves some elements of the lads’ lives, and the role of some of the supporting ‘players’ rather sketchy.
Perhaps the DVD will expand a little – and I’d happily watch a version that was twice as long. Definitely one of the best pieces of ‘non-fiction cinema’ I’ve seen in a long while.Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2010