REVIEW: SONS OF CUBA
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Tuesday, March 30, 2010.
The human spirit is the main focus of Andrew Lang's impressive debut documentary on the Havana Boxing Academy. The school is part of a successful sporting project which has produced 32 Olympic gold medal winners in 45 years, and this production is perfectly summed up in a publicity interview recalling a fighter’s statement on the country’s pugilistic prowess:
"Ours is a small country, but we love to fight, we're fighters in all aspects of life."
It's a fitting comment for Cuba the society, and its half-century long revolutionary process, which in itself is built on the foundations of a tenacious anti-slavery struggle and equally determined anti-colonial resistance.
That historical tradition isn't ostensibly the subject of this touching and award-winning film, but it does go some way in explaining the maturity and outlook of the young boxers portrayed in this film. Lang focuses on the Havana youngsters’ preparation for a grudge Under-12's Championship rematch with fierce rivals from the city of Matanzas.
The boys featured - Cristian ‘the old man’ Martinez, Santos ‘the Singer’ Urguelles and Junior ‘the Dalmatian’ Menendez - are equally tearful, focussed, immature and mischievous. Overseen by a paternalistic but stern coach Yosvani Bonachea, the academy’s students come from every province of the country, with each selecting up to ten 9 year-old boys. So we follow the stories of the young hopefuls through eight months of gruelling and innovative training and schooling.
Each one has their own drama to deal with - sport rivalries, doubts and demanding preparations; as well as intimately portrayed insecurities and family crises.
Trained in film schools in Chile and Cuba, Lang's assured and accomplished photography is unobtrusive, gaining intimate access to Cuban homes, schools and boxing arenas. He combines Havana's iconic colonial era architecture with more intimate hand-held camera shots. His expert filming is shared with legendary Cuban filmmaker Domingo Triana. The fact that it’s in Spanish shouldn’t deter viewers as Lang’s narration and English subtitles aptly fill in the gaps.
In a case of being in the right place at the right time; Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s retirement from public life and the defection of three champions, creates uncertainty in the training camp and adds another dimension to the filmmaker’s story. Switching effortlessly between socio-political observations and human and sporting drama are subplots that give this sensitively portrayed 90-minute feature great tension, matched only by the dramatic fights scenes at its climax.
Ambition, sacrifice, responsibility, self-confidence and a high self-esteem are the qualities that create a champion boxer. They are also attributes which assist any country to build and protect its own independence, to sustain its own nation-building project and defend its sovereignty, especially with a powerful United States as next door neighbour! Lang built on these elements.
In exploring the world famous sporting culture of this fascinating country, Lang's assured and accomplished documentary reveals that the Cubans are not carbon cut-outs but regular Caribbean people, affected as much by the mundane day-to-day problems of family, hopes, emotions and dreams as anyone else in the world.
Sons of Cuba
Directed by Andrew Lang
Running time: 90 MIN
Selected cinemas across the UK, from 19 March 2010
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.