Sons of Cuba: a knockout doc

Andrew Lang’s moving and punchy debut film is a tale of young pugilists’ triumph over adversity in Havana.

Rob Lyons

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How do you deal with the pressures of competing in sport at a high level? What sacrifices would you make and how would you cope with defeat, knowing that your best wasn’t good enough? And what if you had to confront all that when you’re not even 12 years old?

These are the questions the young boys at the Havana City Boxing Academy grapple with in Andrew Lang’s debut documentary Sons of Cuba. The academy is one of a number dotted around Cuba where the pick of the nation’s boys live, train and study, all hoping to emulate the dozens of previous amateur world and Olympic medallists – including three-time Olympic champions Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon – who have represented the Caribbean island. With a population of just 11million, the country’s success in boxing is extraordinary, built on a Stalinist prioritisation of sport as a way of providing a positive image to the world at large.

There are peculiar factors involved in Cuba’s ascendancy in the world of boxing. Firstly, there is the drilling of children from an early age to become elite sports stars, typical of Soviet-style societies. For Cuba, the sport of choice has been boxing. Secondly, there is the advantage that the country’s best fighters remain in the amateur ranks, so they can compete in the Olympics and the world championships again and again, while in most other countries amateur success is merely a stepping stone to the professional ranks. For example, Britain’s Olympic Wunderkind from 2004, Amir Khan, lost out on gold to the veteran Cuban Mario Kindelan, but has since gone on to claim a version of the world light-welterweight title as a professional (though he defeated Kindelan in a rematch in what would prove to be Khan’s last amateur fight).

This success means that boxing plays an important role in Cuban identity. Sons of Cuba follows three boys at the Havana club. Junior – aka ‘The Dalmatian’ because of the white patches on his head – has big troubles at home and is distracted in his preparation by the disintegration of his parents’ relationship. Santos – whose ability to rattle off a song on any subject leads to him being nicknamed ‘The Singer’ – lives with his widowed father and his stepmother and can’t resist pastries even when he’s supposed to be losing weight. But the central character is Cristian, ‘The Old Man’, a natural-born boxer whose father, Luis Felipe Martinez, had been a great champion and in whose mighty footsteps he is trying to follow.

The film takes us through the ups and downs in the boys’ lives as they prepare for the national championships. The Havana coach is still smarting after losing the overall title to the rural town of Matanzas. He desperately wants to win the title back, but that means the pressure is on the boys all the more. Yet the coach manages to be an entirely likeable father figure, firm but caring. He needs to be as much a psychologist as a disciplinarian because the regime is tough: the boys get up before dawn to train, then they go off to a normal school, and then come back for more training. The boys yawn their way through their lessons while being as flighty and emotional as any other children.

The children do all this against a background of poverty. Cuba is relatively well-off by Latin American standards, at least in terms of those areas the government can focus intensively upon – like health and education. But the rest of the economy is a mess. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the country suffered extreme hardship during what was known as the Special Period. Even food came to be in very short supply because Cuba’s main source of petroleum was suddenly gone. The country’s gross domestic product fell by 34 per cent in a very short time while industry and agriculture all but ground to a halt. The result was widespread malnutrition, the memories of which still trouble the young boxers’ parents.

Cuba is still scarred by buildings that are falling apart and beyond repair, while the much-admired Fifties cars that sparsely populate the country’s roads are unreliable, kept in use out of sheer necessity. Even today, Cubans struggle to get from A to B, queuing at street corners to hitch a ride on anything that has wheels and that is going vaguely in their direction.

The making of Sons of Cuba coincides with other traumas for Cubans. The ill-health of their long-time leader Fidel Castro, who announces he is stepping aside in favour of his brother, Raul. With the constant sense of threat from the US and the privations of the Special Period, the loss of their leader only adds to Cubans’ sense of uncertainty. For the boys in the boxing club, this uncertainty is compounded by the defection of some of the country’s leading fighters to the US, something seen as the worst kind of betrayal.

Yet for all the peculiarities of the Cuban situation, Sons of Cuba deals with many very universal themes, too. For example, the relationship between Cristian and his father is an intriguing one. Luis Felipe is clearly a fairly arrogant man who has fallen on hard times and lives on past glories. He is pretty hard on his son, who he believes will never be as good as him. Yet when he finally realises that his son might be good enough to be a champion, too, he is reduced to tears of joy. If you do catch Sons of Cuba, bring the Kleenex; behind the machismo, this is a deeply touching story.

If there is a problem with Sons of Cuba, it is the nagging feeling we’ve been here before. The low-budget documentary, following the lives of people through a familiar narrative, which ends with some kind of triumph over adversity. A good and equally entertaining example from last year was Sounds Like Teen Spirit, the story of children trying to win the Junior Eurovision Song Contest (see a review here). Of course, a director needs to find some kind of way of pulling the material together to make sense of it all, but there is the danger that the resulting story is a little trite.

But if the triumph-over-adversity story arc is a little too familiar, the joy of Sons of Cuba is in the detail, and in the very human range of emotions that the boys – and their mentors – go through along the way.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

Sons of Cuba goes on general release in the UK on 19 March 2010. Watch the trailer here:

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