Thursday, April 2, 2009

FULL FRAME: "Sons of Cuba" boxing film premiere

Durham's downtown film fest opens today:

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival website

More to follow...

UPDATE added Sunday (3/5): SONS OF CUBA World Premiere

I went to the sold-out, world premiere Friday night of Sons of Cuba, a British-made film about the boys' boxing academy in Havana. Director Andrew Lang and editor Simon Rose said they had only just finished the film 3 days earlier. Lang completed film school training in Cuba in 2005 and had unprecedented access to the boarding academy, which accepts boys as young as 9 and trains them to become Olympic boxers.

I really liked the film, any movie that brings the sights and sounds of Cuba and its people closer is a joy. Music's role in the film was mostly in the soundtrack, which drew heavily on Cuban rap; the credits went by fast but I remember seeing one Eliseo Grenet tune, and some unfamiliar band names I take to be next gen hip hop. This was a good fit for the theme.

One boy, Santos, is nicknamed "The Singer," because he's always composing rap-like lyrics and songs on the spot. He was rather unhappy at boxing camp, and I kept thinking, they should transfer this kid to the conservatory farm system! I admit that one of my motives to see the film is that I imagine it must be somewhat similar to the life experienced by young musicians in Cuba, who are also taken from home at a young age. I think I am probably not too wrong in this.

The degree of love and bonding among the boys, and also between them and their nevertheless demanding coach, was an impressive fact. So was the close relationship most of these boys shared with their mothers. It was striking to me that the coach even impressed upon the boys, "your mother is the most important person in your life." That's far from the aggressive, "don't be a sissy," encoding of masculinity and rejection of all things feminine so typical in many or most societies when they are training men for a sport like boxing. Knowing Cuban culture from another angle, it was not hard for me to imagine these boys a little older, when they start having girlfriends, and thinking that any boy who loves his mother so much will surely end having a healthy respect for and attachment to women. That's not to say there is no "macho" element in Cuban culture (so I hear), but there's a certain approach to love, sensuality and pleasure, at least encoded in the music, that I find quite egalitarian. Let's just take as one example Mayito's song with Los Van Van, "Llevala a tu vacilon," where a guy is encouraged to take his girlfriend out to the parties with him, rather than leaving her at home. Let your girl have her fun, or you won't have a girl for very long.

It was hard to watch very young children undergo such grueling physical training. I couldn't help wondering if the obsession with weight, in particular, was not detrimental at that age, both physically and psychological. How do they allow for these kids to grow up, while maintaining a rigid weight class of say 32 kg? The hero, Christian, really had a gaunt, overexercised appearance. He sure as hell could fight though. Christian was an interesting character, because he's the son of a former Cuban Olympic and World Champion.

There was so much heart and emotion in this movie and so many tears: tears in victory, tears in defeat, tears when family stress intruded on school, tears when certain kids didn't make the team cut. I have never seen so many men (and boys) cry in two hours in my life! These men really love and comfort each other, even the rival coaches of the Havana and Matanzas academies, who do some hilarious trash talking in the beginning, but dissolve in a tearful embrace at the end. The Matanzas kid boxers had a reputation of being big, tough, yucca-eating farmers' sons who can punch you into next week, which made me think about the Matanzas stevedores who invented rumba, and Ignacio Piñeiro walking out to Matanzas for some good Afro-Congolese food and dancing in the song "Echale Salsita."

After the film, I stood up at one of the mics and asked the filmmakers if they had considered the film, among other things, as a portrait of Cuban masculinity; to my shock, really, Lang said this never occurred to him. Never occurred to him! Interesting. And he says he went to an all-male boarding school.

I think this has something to do with the fact that, like most outsiders making a movie about the Cuban system, they bring their own values to it somehow. That's not inappropiate. But Lang highlighted the historicity of the film being shot during the transition from Fidel to Raul. However, this event seemed like a bit of an anticlimax to me, both as experienced in real life, and as a dramatic element in the film. I guess he wouldn't be doing his job as a filmmaker not to position the film in its context and political moment in this way, but it really had no impact on the inherent drama of the film, which was all about the boys and their rival boxing teams. And, their dreams.

One point that the film made clearly was that all these people, children and adults, are coping with life in this system, the way anyone anywhere is forced to do. In particular, all these boys face a lot of pressure from their families to do well, so that they might have a chance to pull their families out of poverty. It's really not that different from the U.S., where low-wealth minorities are positioned to view sports and entertainment as aspirational paths.

It's a remarkable film, well worth seeing. If you love Cuba and her children, you'll probably be crying too by the end; I was. Beautiful moving images, too. These kids are unforgettable. Oh, and I can't wait for the followup films in 5 years, 10 years, etc. Like the Balseros docs, that would really be fascinating. Are you listening, Lang & friends? Well done, and keep us posted.

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