Tribeca Film Festival Review: Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s ‘ELIÁN’

We all know his name. He was the five-year old Cuban refugee discovered floating on an inner tube in the Florida straits. Pulled ashore by fisherman and delivered into the hands of his father’s family in Miami, Elián González went on to become the poster child of a political and personal war with no clear solution. Thousands of Cuban refugees living in Miami hailed the boy’s arrival as a blessed homecoming. Thousands more in Cuba got behind Fidel Castro and called for the boy’s return. Almost 20 years after his name faded from headlines, Irish filmmakers Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell have taken up Elián’s story with the intention of telling it like it’s never been told before. ELIÁN contextualizes the boy’s sensationalized story in a larger political context, asks provocative questions about the underlying motivations of key players and goes so far as to suggest his fate has had a lasting significance on the U.S. government and beyond.

ELIÁN was acquired by CNN Films and its readiness for television is clear. Forgoing patience or anything that could be called “impressionistic,” ELIÁN’s techniques are more suited to an extended cable news special. Nevertheless, the approach is an entertaining one. Golden and McDonnell cut rapidly between archival news footage and revealing interviews with all the right figures including Elián’s father (who fought for his son’s repatriation), Elián’s cousin (who became Elián’s mother figure during his stay in the States) and the officer who eventually extracted Elián from his temporary home at gunpoint. And best of all, we get to hear from Elián himself. Except the filmmakers wisely withhold certain details of his current life until the end of the film, and it makes for a satisfying and poignant payoff.

The question at the core of ELIÁN has less to do with what happens to the boy and more to do with what happens to the American public that drank up every image, headline and news clip related to the story and were consequently left with shrugging shoulders. Did he belong in the land of the free as his drowned mother intended? Or was he rightly relocated to Cuba in the care of a man who really did seem to love him? There was no easy answer, then or now.

It’s a miracle that Golden and McDonnell were able to create such a coherent document out of what appears to be bureaucratic chaos. The footage of Elián’s ultimate capture is especially riveting, as it captures both the brute force of the troopers as they entered the house and the hoards of people outside who formed a human shield to protect a boy they didn’t even know. Watching the situation unravel in Golden and McDonnell’s capable hands produces a wave of so many conflicting emotions that it’s easy to find oneself flip-flopping sides. Of course the loving family in Miami should keep the boy on American soil where he can grow up with hearty American values (and toys). But wait, of course he should go back to Cuba. It’s the universal right of every father to raise his own flesh and blood, regardless of a communist regime.

The most startling thesis put forth by the film is that Elián’s predicament led to the 2000 election of George W. Bush for president. After all, it was Florida’s 10,000 Cuban immigrants, dissatisfied with the Clinton administration’s decision regarding Elián, who switched their votes to republican and decided the fate of the presidency. Maybe if democratic Attorney General Janet Reno had labored to keep Elián rather than hand him back to Cuba, Al Gore would have won and the Iraq War might never have happened. It’s exactly this kind of far-fetched postulating that places ELIÁN squarely in the arena of high-stakes, TV drama. Golden and McDonnell are smart enough to follow this idea with a differing perspective but still, much of the documentary plays out in this combative and deliberately stirring tone.

One of the fishermen who found Elián called it a miracle. The other said it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Elián’s father declared Cuba a fine place to raise a child. Elián’s cousin said America was the only place for him because it was the only place where he could live as freely as his mother intended. Castro claimed the boy like a piece of Cuban property. The Miami people extolled him as an American hero. One thing’s for sure: everyone in ELIÁN has a different story. Golden and McDonnell tell them all.

Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.