Documentary Review: ‘Elián’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

I was only a few years older than Elián González when he was rescued off the Florida coast. Almost all of what made his ordeal sensational escaped my understanding at the time: decades of tension between Cuba and America; the electoral clout of a self-styled “exile” community in Miami; the nuances of these political realities exploited and played out through the drama of a family divided over what was best for a five year-old boy. Directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell take their time in this new documentary, setting out each thread in the story before weaving them all together into a multigenerational, international narrative.

The film opens with fishermen Donato Dalrymple and Sam Ciancio recounting the day they rescued Elián. (Two others were pulled from the water as well, but the focus here remains squarely on González.) Throughout the movie the two men serve as foils: Dalrymple, clearly moved by his experiences that day, remains a vocal participant in the months-long ordeal; Ciancio, his cousin, prefers to stay out of the limelight and instead urges everyone to remember the little boy caught up in an expanding conflict. The person who truly anchors the personal tale of Elián’s time with his Miami relatives is his cousin, Marisleysis González. Her unselfish affection helps buoy the viewer through a parade of self-aggrandizing interlopers: politicians, community activists, and opportunists hoping to further their own agenda. The story then shifts to the larger picture of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Cold War tensions, and the exodus of fearful Cubans to the United States. Contemporary news footage and modern-day interviews come together to paint a vivid portrait of the difficulties faced by those who chose to leave their homeland, as well as those who stayed behind. However heartbreaking, it’s easy to see how the misfortune of one child could become the flashpoint for years of tension.

Sparsely narrated by Raúl Esparza (an appropriate choice, as he was raised by Cuban-American parents in Miami), the sources of the time provide the backbone of Elián’s story. Accompanying Esparza’s voice-over, interviews with figures like Ricardo Alarcón, former president of the Cuban National Assembly; Jorge Mas Santos, Chairman of the Board of the Cuban American National Foundation; Carl Hiaasen, a columnist with the Miami Herald; and Juan Miguel González, Elian’s father, provide context and a personal touch. Elián himself rarely interjects during the first three-quarters of the story. Over scenes of a media scrum outside his relative’s Miami home, he explains to the viewer: “I didn’t want to meet anyone, I’m shy.”

Only after everyone else has gotten to contribute is Elián given center stage in his own story. He talks about the happiness he’s found in his home country and his deep admiration of Castro, saying if he practiced religion “[his] God would be Fidel”. This outcome is presented as neither tragedy nor triumph. Golden and McDonnell wisely refrain from commentary throughout, allowing equal room for both contentment and grief in the González family.

This restraint carries over even when certain sound bites cannot fail to remind viewers of the current refugee crisis. Politicians still active today are heard advocating for an open reception of Elián and his father; Donald Trump even makes a cameo early on. These clips are all presented without further remark, although perhaps the filmmakers’ silence is commentary enough.

As one interviewee notes: “Elián did not have his own story. Rather, a story unfolded around Elián.” Almost the same could be said for this film. Evenhanded in approach, it gathers together the emotions that spread from one family to the communities and countries that surrounded them into a story much larger than one boy. And if you were to ask Elian about his own story, he would reply that “it hasn’t been told yet”.

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