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‘Elián’ Doc Revisits Famous Custody Battle Over Cuban Boy

‘Elián’ is named for the five-year-old Cuban boy who survived a sea voyage to Florida that killed at least 10 others, including his mother. A new documentary recaps the seven-month custody battle over Elián that divided Miami’s immigrant community of “Little Havana.”

A new documentary about Elián González, the five year-old Cuban boy rescued in the Florida Straits in 1999, will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Co-directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell offer no new perspectives in Elián, but the documentary is well-researched and skillfully produced. Nearly two decades after their subject became the focus of a custody battle, the documentary’s appeal is mostly to younger audiences for whom Elián’s ordeal may not be living memory. 

Elián is replete with archival footage that is intercut with the filmmakers’ interviews of 23-year-old Elián, his father Juan Miguel, and his cousin Marisleysis. Marisleysis has not spoken to Elián since he left Miami in April 2000, but she was then the spokesperson for the Miami branch of the González family. Elián and his mother Elizabeth escaped Cuba as passengers on a 16-foot outboard boat; she perished along with nearly all aboard when the vessel sunk. During the seven months between the time Elián landed in Florida, and he was returned to Juan Miguel, he lived with his Miami relatives. A custody battle pitting the father against his family began soon after Elián’s arrival, the Miami Gonzálezes arguing that Elizabeth died to win freedom for her son. 

Interviews with journalists and photographers who reported the events, U.S. government authorities, and leaders of the Cuban community in Miami, provide context for the often emotional testimony from family members. Interviewees also explain how the custody case created internal rifts in Little Havana, and disagreements between Cubans and the white residents of Miami, both of which are depicted in the documentary. Militant immigrants sought to bring down Fidel Castro and return to their homeland; they wanted Elián to stay in the U.S. Others thought the boy belonged with his father, despite the fact that he was a Communist and an outspoken supporter of Castro. Elián touched the hearts of Americans, and the custody battle sparked debate throughout the country. 

Elián begins with Donato Dalrymple and his cousin Sam Ciancio who spotted Elián at sea, wriggling inside a tire tube. Dalrymple is the man holding Elián in Alan Diaz’s famous photo of the raid in which the child, on Attorney General Janet Reno’s order, was seized from the González home by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services). He was then returned to his father. For many years, Dalrymple exploited the role he played in Elián’s story to raise his own profile, although he was a bit player—it was the Cold War rhetoric exchanged by President Bill Clinton and Castro that turned the doe-eyed Elián, still grieving over this mother’s death, into a political football. 

While Golden and McDonnell paint Clinton and Reno in a negative light, they go easy on the press, whose exploitation of Elián was second only to that of Miami’s local politicians. Ironically, Diaz is the sole journalist made to look bad when in an interview he says that his now iconic photo of an INS agent holding a terrified Elián at gunpoint represents “freedom of the press.” (Golden was a prominent player in the excoriation of a fellow journalist, the late Gary Webb, the subject of the 2014 film, Kill the Messenger). The Miami relatives are let off rather easily as well; Marisleysis, for instance, is not questioned about the possible manipulation of Elián in the family’s release of a video in which the boy asks his father to stay with him in the U.S. 

Elián actually represents a recap of Golden’s print work; he wrote about the custody battle for the New York Times. So why revisit the story? The political and moral issues raised in the documentary are not new, and the interviews with Juan Miguel and Elián cover much the same ground as a wave of interviews they granted in 2015. In the course of the film, when Elián complains that no one has ever told his story, those interested in biography are likely to agree. Elián’s life is still being viewed through events he barely remembers and over which he exercised no control. What we learn about him in Elián is that he is a good Communist and, according to his girlfriend, a handsome and thoughtful guy.