For those unaware of the story, Tim Golden and Ross McDonald’s “Elian” is likely to be startling. The documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend, depicts the case of Elian Gonzalez, who was taken by his mother from Cuba to Florida on a small aluminum boat in 1999 to escape the regime of Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, the five-year-old was the only one to survive the treacherous journey, as his mother and fellow refugees perished while the boat was destroyed. Two fisherman rescued him from the water and brought him to his uncles and cousins who lived in Miami.
What ensued was a geopolitical showdown: Miami-based Cubans used Elian as a symbol for why Castro was a terrible ruler, whereas the dictator responded by uniting the country to bring the boy home, aided by Elian’s loving father who had long been a supporter of the communist government. The documentary serves as an impressive narrative retelling of the scandal, that also cohesively summarizes the plight of Cuban migrants after Castro’s rise in the 1950s. Vitally, the film also shows the formulation of a media circus — in that not only does it need the spectacle itself but also the cooperation of those involved.
Typical of most narrative-like documentaries, “Elian” relies heavily on talking-head interviews to formulate a chronological and comprehensive story, with a special kick: The subject himself is one of the interviewees. This serves simultaneously as one of the film’s strongest assets and biggest weaknesses, as Elian gives his striking first-hand account of an international power struggle, through the viewpoint of a five-year-old no less. However, it’s clear that Golden and McDonald feared using too many of his interviews, seemingly because they did not want to spoil the result of the case what with the film’s chronological structure.
Sadly, much is sacrificed for the sake of narrative cohesion, as Elian’s mother is almost entirely left out of the film. The only notes on her are minor — namely, that she took her son without consulting his father, although the separated couple is said to have been on good terms.
Elian’s uncles seems to be forgotten as well, as they are not featured as interview subjects and the morality of their actions — continuously trotting their nephew out in front of cameras whenever necessary — is never fully discussed. Elian’s cousin Marisleysis, who took on a maternal role for the boy, serves as the de facto voice for the Miami-based Gonzalez family, and while her care for the boy is evident and her insights are important, she is unable to fully articulate the perspective of her U.S. relatives.
Above all else, though, “Elian” never loses sight of the minutiae of the story. While it is analyzes the affair on a macro level — including a discussion of whether or not the Clinton administration’s handling of Elian’s case helped President George W. Bush get elected — the film readily stays focused on its subject. This becomes most evident in the film’s conclusion where it follows Elian in his present-day life, giving him the proper breadth to conclude his story on his own terms.
This kind of documentary filmmaking is an incredibly important reminder that there are real people at the center of crises and scandals, and given the sociopolitical state of the world today, it’s a lesson we ought to heed.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, May 1 print edition.
Email Ethan Sapienza at [email protected].