The Havana Boxing Academy is a Cuban boarding school that takes 9-year-old boys, and turns them into the best boxers in the world. SONS OF CUBA follows the stories of three young hopefuls ... See full summary »
The Havana Boxing Academy is a Cuban boarding school that takes 9-year-old boys, and turns them into the best boxers in the world. SONS OF CUBA follows the stories of three young hopefuls through 8 dramatic months of training and schooling as they prepare for the biggest event of their lives so far: Cuba's National Boxing Championship for Under-12's. But during the season, crisis strikes: Fidel Castro is taken ill, and all of Cuba's Olympic boxing champions defect to the USA, leaving Cuba at a crossroads, and the boys contemplating a changing world Written by
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).
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. 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.
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