Documentary Film: “Elián”


Many thanks to Ariana Hernández Reguant (EthnoCuba) who recommends the documentary  Elián (directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell), which is showing in South Florida for only two more days—today (June 19) and Thursday, June 22—at O Cinema Wynwood in Miami. For ticketing information, see [Also see previous post—a review by Bill Meyer for People’s World.] Below, Mimi Whitefield (Miami Herald) reviews Elián, underlining that the documentary “revisits a painful chapter in Cuban-American history.” Here are excerpts:

Just after dawn on Thanksgiving Day 1999, two South Florida fishermen scanned the ocean and saw what one thought was a “sick joke”: a doll tied to an inner tube. But when they saw a hand move, Donato Dalrymble and his cousin Sam Ciancio rushed to rescue what turned out to be a 5-year-old boy whose mother and 10 others perished when the small aluminum boat a group of 14 had used to flee Cuba began to take on water.

Thus began the saga of Elián González, the so-called “Thanksgiving miracle.” Elián, as he would simply be known, became caught up in a bitter international custody battle between his Miami relatives and his Cuban father, who said his son had been taken from the island without his permission. But it soon grew into an epic feud that rubbed Miami raw and polarized many families.

On one side was a large segment of the exile community for whom the boy symbolized their own desperate search for freedom and a dead mother’s wishes for a better future for her son. On the other was a father’s right to be reunited with his son and raise him as he saw fit even if it meant sending the boy back to a country then firmly controlled by Fidel Castro.

Now, as a new chapter of Cuba-U.S. relations unfolds, a documentary revisits the painful drama that began in Miami but soon stretched from Washington to Havana when Castro became personally involved in the custody battle and rallied the Cuban masses to demand Elián’s return. People from all over the globe were riveted by the story.

Elián, the film, mines hundreds of hours of archival news footage from both sides of the Florida Straits, as well as home videos, and revisits key players. It includes extensive interviews with Elián, now a 23-year-old industrial engineering graduate and a member of the Young Communists Union; his father, Juan Miguel González; and Marisleysis González, Elián’s cousin who cared for him and became a mother figure to him after his arrival in Miami.

[. . .] Producer Trevor Birney, a Belfast-based documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist, said it took about three years of effort before producers finally achieved a breakthrough in getting the crucial first interviews with Elián and his father in 2015.

[. . .] The filmmakers also spoke with her father, Lázaro, and late uncle Delfín, who also fought to keep Elián in the United States, but were not able to interview them for the film.

“It was amazing to me that nobody had ever gone back to this subject — as big and important an issue as it was — not just for the Cuban-American community or U.S.-Cuba relations, but even as a watershed media event,” said Golden, a former Miami Herald and New York Times reporter who first became acquainted with the family when he wrote a profile of them for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine in 2000. [. . .]

“We understood that people felt a great deal of passion about this, and we’ve done everything we could to be respectful of those feelings,” Golden said. “It’s a story that some people probably haven’t yet fully processed, and we hope the film will have some value in helping the broader Cuban family to heal.”

For full review, see

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