The recent news about thawing relations between Cuba and the United States reminded me that I haven’t written about one of the more compelling films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Andrew Lang’s debut documentary feature, Sons of Cuba, which follows three young boxers as they train at the Cuban Boxing Academy. The film offers a rare glimpse inside of a culture closed off to most Americans while also providing a compelling, suspenseful coming-of-age story about three talented and charming young boys.
Lang’s film is structured around the stories of three boys,Cristian “The Old Man” Martinez, Santos “The Singer” Urguelles, and Junior “The Dalmatian” Martinez, all between nine and eleven years old and all facing unique challenges as they seek to win the national titles for their age group and weight. The three boxers wake up, with their fellow boxers at 4 AM, well before dawn, for two hours of training before eating a small breakfast and spending a day of school and then more training in the afternoon. These training sessions, which involve jogging, calisthenics, usually before dawn, help to convey the dedication the boys have to the sport and the sacrifices they are willing to make to succeed in their sport and, potentially, position themselves to win a spot on the Olympic boxing team.
When I first saw the film, I found myself resisting some of the sports film cliches that put the narrative in motion. Cristian, the son of Luis Felipe Martinez an Olympic and world champion boxer, returns to fight after losing in the national championship the previous year, costing the Havana Boxing Academy the team title. Santos fights in part to overcome the grief over his mother’s death but also struggles with a voracious appetite that may push him into a higher weight class. Junior, who originally trained in ballet, worries that he is too soft, caring too much about his opponents’ feelings. But even while these stories may echo past sports films, Lang manages to show how these narratives help to give the boys a way to make sense of their lives.
The film is also important because of the glimpse of daily life in Cuba that it provides. Unlike Moore’s Sicko, which seeks to make a pedantic point using Cuban hospitals, Sons of Cuba offers a sustained analysis of daily life: the struggles and the poverty many Cuban citizens face but also the admiration reserved for successful athletes, an admiration fostered by Fidel Castro himself. Significantly, Lang was in Cuba when Castro became ill, ceding authority to his younger brother, Raul, and we get a number of scenes in which the boys watch the news with concern to learn more about their nation’s leader. As relations between these two countries (hopefully) continue to thaw, Sons of Cuba should provide a valuable window into the daily lives of a group of young boys who fight for themselves, for their teammates, for their families, and for their country.