In 2005 and with no prior moviemaking experience, I embarked on my first documentary feature, which took me four years to complete. Sons of Cuba is one of the most intimate access films ever to be made in Cuba. The film is set in the legendary Havana Boxing Academy, a state-run boarding school that takes nine-year-old boys and turns them into the best boxers in the world.
The film made its world premiere as the opening night of the Full Frame Festival in April 2009, and had its European premiere at Rome Film Festival in October of that same year.
Back in 2005, I read an article in the U.K. Times about the prowess of Cuban boxers, who have dominated world amateur boxing for the last 40 years. When asked why they were so good, two-time Olympic boxing champion Mario Kindelán replied, “Cubans are fighters in all walks of life. Ours is a small country, but we live to fight.” I immediately had the idea of making a short film that looked at the struggle of Cuban society through the fight of one of its boxers.
I stayed in Havana and began to look for a boxer to follow. Initially, I thought about maybe a 17-year-old about to break into the national team, but then one day I found myself at 4 a.m. standing on a training ground as all around me 25 11-year-old boys shadowboxed whilst chanting, “Victory is our duty. Defeat has no justification.” It was a no-brainer: I would make a film about these kids.
At this stage I was still only planning on making a 10-minute short. I returned to England in January 2006 and edited my short. But even before I had finished cutting it, the idea of following the boys through an entire eight-month season was knocking on the door. Without any idea what I was letting myself in for, I decided to make a feature.
Getting Permission to Shoot in the Havana Boxing Academy
Throughout all of my time trying to raise money in the U.K., I had been in close contact with my Cuban producers. We had shot our three-day short semi-clandestinely, but the same would not be possible if we were going to be following the story over several months. We wanted to shoot observationally and freely in the boys boxing academy, but to our knowledge the state had never permitted observational shooting in one of its institutions. Reams of government approvals were needed, and it wasn’t until right at the start of the shoot that we were able to persuade them not to send a minder with us at all times. Central to the plan was to work with a completely Cuban crew. I would be the only foreigner, and would also gain residency in Cuba. These were a lot of hoops to jump through, but it was worth the effort. When Castro fell ill several months later, the country entered a state of heightened alert. We heard of two foreign documentary crews being expelled immediately. The reason our shoot was allowed to continue was quite simply that it was considered a Cuban production by the authorities, not a foreign one.
Finding the Main Protagonists
There were 23 11-year-old boys, all Afro-Cuban, all from similar backgrounds, all with dreams of one day becoming Olympic champions. How to choose three? For the first few weeks, my Cuban producer Dania Ilisástegui and I spent many hours at the Academy watching the boys, trying to work out their characters and trying to predict whose stories would become dramatic once the pressure of the competition season set in. When we started filming, we had a short list of 10. About three weeks later we ended up with five, each of whom I followed to the end of the season. In the edit we lost one immediately, and another one after the first round of rough cuts. This left us with the three who appear in the film.
Making a Distinct Story Structure Before Filming
I knew from the start that the climax of the film would be Cuba’s national boxing championship for Under 12s. I split up the film into three acts in my mind. Act one would set up the importance of sport within the Cuban Revolution, explore the role of the boxing academy in producing champions and provide an introduction to each of the three characters. Act two would feature a mixture of more constructed scenes, featuring the kids at home with their families, and purely observational scenes in the academy. One of the hard things was working out how what we referred to as “the Castro subplot” would fit in with our main plot of the boys and their dreams of becoming national champions. Castro fell ill and dramatically ceded power near the start of our shoot, and there are several scenes where we see the boys, and Cuba as a whole, reacting to life without him for the first time in 48 years. How to meld these scenes with the main plot was something we mainly discovered in the edit.
We really mixed shooting styles in the film. Some scenes, like the one near the start of the film where the boys train under floodlights, were highly constructed. There were no lights ordinarily on their training ground, so we had to bring them in for the scene. At other times, cameras would be set up to capture a moment in the political calendar that we knew was about to happen: For example, the first military parade without Fidel or the 50th anniversary of the start of the revolution. There was a third style of shooting in which we set up scenes to produce a piece of reality, like when Cristian goes to see his father, the forgotten boxing champion, and they look through an album of photos of his career. With these scenes I was particularly influenced by the Chilean moviemaker Patricio Guzmán. He often shoots scenes in documentaries that are totally constructed, yet create a level of truth that goes beyond anything you could capture through direct cinema.
Shooting in Cuba
Shooting in Cuba is incredibly hard work. There was recently a show of Cuban music videos in London and one of the directors quipped, “Making a three-minute music video in Cuba is as much work as making a feature anywhere else in the world.” There is the attention of the authorities, the huge amount of bureaucracy, the fact that many of the cast and crew do not have phones at home, the almost complete lack of computers and the Internet, the power and water cuts, the transport which always breaks down… The only thing to do is to go with the flow, shrug and say as the Cubans do, “Bueno, estamos en Cuba.” (“After all, we’re in Cuba.”)
Showing Emotion on Camera
The extraordinary intimacy we were able to capture, both in observational scenes and in interviews, can be accounted to several things: I think firstly that Cubans, as a people, are very open and warm, unafraid of showing a great depth of emotion. Secondly, though, we got to know these people extremely well. All of my Cuban crew were personable individuals and cast and crew formed very close bonds. It went far beyond the making of the film: If one of the boys was having problems at school, or someone’s mother needed a lift somewhere to run an errand, we’d often be the first port of call. I think that kind of family atmosphere comes through on camera.
One of the things that seems to most surprise audiences is the amount of crying there is on camera. At the Full Frame Q&A, one member of the audience said, “I don’t think I have ever seen a film in which so many men cry!” I certainly can’t think of one. But why is that? I think that in this particular atmosphere, emotion is very near the surface. On an obvious level, you have young kids being pushed to the mental and physical limits. But on a less obvious level, I would say that this is a society that demands enormous sacrifice of its people. The whole rhetoric of the Cuban Revolution is one of resistance, whatever the cost. This is something everyone has to subscribe to, whether they agree with the ideology behind it or not. It has caused hunger, family separation, even in some cases death when you look at the fate of some of the balseros (rafters) who try to escape by sea. I think that when people make such huge sacrifices, it’s natural to want to feel that it has been worth it. But in the case of Cuba, it’s more complicated.
People have made some nice comments about the cinematography and I think the first thing to say about that is that Cuba helps you a lot in this respect. There is this crumbling beauty and a lot of faded Caribbean colors that make so much of what you film look instantly appealing. But I also think that the melding of cinematic styles worked well for us. There are quite ordinary observational documentary shots combined with some quite stylized camerawork. It seems you only need to sprinkle a few of these “cinematic” shots into the film to considerably raise the aesthetic level of the whole work. Once you’ve done that, people seem to almost forget the places where the camerawork is more ordinary.
Distributing the Film
The film was shot, edited and graded to be as cinematic as possible. We also mixed in 5.1 surround sound to give a theatrical experience. I’d like to see the film have a long festival run over the next couple of years, as well as open theatrically in the U.K., U.S. and Spain. As well as mainstream festivals, I’d like to see the film play at festivals all over Latin America. But the festival we were most looking forward to was the Festival of New Latin-American Cinema in Havana in December. Bringing the film home to Cuba was a great moment. Cubans watch films like no other nation, shouting at the screen and at each other as the story develops. A proper theatrical release in Cuba is not out of the question, but it depends on whether the authorities consider the film too negative in its portrayal of Cuban reality. I hope that this is not the case.
For more complete screening information, go to www.sonsofcuba.com.