Obviously, Elián Gonzalez could not stay the scrawny five-year-old boy that blew up our TV screens in 2000, but it still felt strange 17 years later to watch his grown-up face on my screen in the new documentary “Elián.”
On Thanksgiving 1999, Elián was plucked from the ocean by two cousins out fishing. He was drifting alone in an inner tube. Most of the rest of his crew, which included his mother, had drowned. He was brought to the U.S., where he had family members who immediately took him in. Editor’s note: this paragraph was updated after publication to correctly reflect the rescue.
But his father was still in Cuba, and the question of who should raise him, and which country he should call home, became a proxy battle for dominance between Cuba and Miami’s powerful, deeply affronted Cuban exile community. Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago describes it as a time when “most of the Cuban-American community stood on one side and the rest of the United States on the other.”
The struggle completely consumed Miami and left the Cuban community raw. Some of that anger remains today, perhaps swept under the rug – but easily pricked.
Ready or not
But co-directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell believe Miami is finally ready to talk about Elián. And so they’ve brought us a feature-length documentary that gives an impartial, unflinching account that begins the day the two fishermen find the little boy adrift and carries right up to today, with Elián now a young adult who sings the praises of the Cuban revolution and its leaders. It’s playing at O Cinema Miami Beach beginning June 2.
“We’re not trying to tear away the scab that’s over this wound at all. I think we’re trying to use the distance and really the kind of ability to see more deeply into this with time and archives and reflection, in order to illuminate this story and see behind the images that were in people’s living rooms 24/7 for months,” says Golden, who worked as a journalist in Miami before the crisis and came back to write a feature for The New York Times Magazine about it.
“It’s a remarkable thing. It was such an intensely covered event, and yet there was so much that people couldn’t see. That was the great attraction of it as a film subject.”
Watching the documentary, I was reminded of just how much Elián and his family members became pawns in this last gasp of the cold war. There were the jingles (“Elián will not go, Elián will stay”) being sung on repeat against a backdrop of Little Havana residents dancing on porches and sidewalks, the chants of his name at the local school he briefly attended, the defiance of Miami-Dade County government when it refused to use any of its resources to help the feds in sending him back to Cuba (oh, how times have changed).
The narrator says, early on in the film:
“This is a story of a little boy from Cuba whose mother died bringing him to freedom in the United States. Or maybe it’s the story of a boy shipwrecked in Miami whose Cuban father just wanted him back. It was always supposed to be Elián’s story — although a lot of other people would try to make it their own.”
“The outrages that were committed by the people pulling strings in this episode are pretty straightforward and obvious. I didn’t think we needed to comment on them. We could show without necessarily having to tell and without necessarily having to take sides,” Golden says.
What Golden and McDonnell created is an impartial film that brings back footage and present-day interviews with pretty much all the key players of the saga. Much younger versions of familiar faces like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Mayor Manny Diaz, who was then the U.S.-based Gonzalez family’s lawyer, appear. As does President Trump, who even then was flirting with the idea of running for president.
“I think the idea had really been confrontation at all costs,” says Golden, “and the costs to this little kid and his family, and… to the Cuban family more broadly were clearly lost on people until such a time as they were laid bare by the outcome.”
What do you think? Is Miami ready for this documentary film? What’s your Elián memory?