Executive-produced by Alex Gibney – the man Esquire magazine once said is “becoming the most important documentarian of our time", tonight’s film ELIAN is flawlessly executed, with a fascinating subject at its heart.
It tells the remarkable story of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who rose to international fame after he was plucked from the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving Day in 1999. Footage of his rescue went worldwide, and when it was coupled with the news that he was the sole survivor of an ill-fated sea journey, hearts everywhere went out to the sad little boy. His mother, Elizabeth, and nine other people who were taking part in the clandestine trip drowned after their rickety boat capsized in high seas as they made their way from Cuba to the United States, and Elian was sent to live with relatives in Miami.
Soon, a custody battle erupted between Gonzalez's Cuban father and his aforementioned Miami-based relatives that sparked a flashpoint for long-simmering post-Cold War U.S. and Cuban tensions. The poor, lost little boy effectively became a political football. His Miami relatives argued passionately that if Elian was sent back to Cuba, he would become a brainwashed trophy for Cuban leader Fidel Castro in his long-running feud with the US. Miami’s Cuban-American population joined in their fight, saying they too wanted him to remain in the U.S. to flout their defiance of Castro. The U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Janet Reno, wanted to send him back to avoid a nightmare situation with Cuba, but also feared the inevitable political fallout.
On the Cuban side, Elian's father, Juan Miguel, fought to bring the boy back to Cuba, whilst Castro led massive protests of his own on the island demanding Elian's return. When Elian's relatives in Miami continued to refuse to hand him over, a nighttime raid was put into action to get him out. Armed federal agents stormed the home of his uncle and seized the boy, with an Associated Press photograph of the terrified child, cowering as an officer in riot gear points an assault rifle at him, went global and inflamed passions even more.
Rioting broke out in Miami as many in the Cuban-American community reacted in anger, but after Elian was reunited with his father the Supreme Court rejected the Miami relatives' efforts to get him back. Father and son flew home to Cuba, and the boy – now a man – remains there to this day.
When little Elian returned to Cuba in 2000, the idea was for him to slip right back into a life far from the glare of the media spotlight he had endured in Miami. Seventeen years later, it hasn't quite worked out that way, but he seems to be a well-adjusted young guy and proud of his past. At 23 he is reportedly one of the most identifiable figures on the island and one of his generation's most outspoken supporters of the Cuban Revolution. He graduated from a military academy in 2016 with a degree in industrial engineering, and after Castro pretty much adopted him as a grandson, he seems none the worse for his childhood trauma.
The film tells his tale using archival footage as well as interviews with the subject today, and it is extremely well edited so as to get the maximum benefit from both. When Castro died at the end of last year, Gonzalez played a key role in the official mourning. "He was like a father," he said. "I wanted to show him what I had achieved so he would be proud of me." If he’d stayed in Miami the outcome could have been quite different I reckon, so give the film a watch and see what you think.
ELIAN premieres Thursday 28 September at 8.30pm
Watch trailer here
Remote record here