By Andrew Lang
The bell rings and Cristian, the 11 year old protagonist of our film, turns to face his opponent in the final of Cuba’s Junior National Boxing championship. Cigar chomping peasants who have parked their horse drawn carts outside look on, and as Cristian touches gloves with his rival, his team-mates boom: “Victory is your duty” in unison from the side of the ring. Our hearts are in our mouths. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for, and the culmination of our five month shoot.
But the roots of this film go back two years to 2005 when I attended the EICTV, a film school outside Havana set up by Fidel Castro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Argentine documentary maker Fernando Birri. There I hoped to meet people who might help me make a film about Cuban boxing. The idea was sparked by an article I’d read in which Cuban double Olympic champion Mario Kindelan explained Cubans’ dominance of world amateur boxing: “Cubans are fighters in all walks of life. Ours is a small country, but we live to fight.” There was a picture of Kindelan working out on a punch bag made of old tires, under a large picture of Castro in boxing gloves. I was hooked. How about a film that looked at the fight of contemporary Cuban society through the fight of one of its boxers?
Initially, I thought about filming a youngster trying to break into the National team. But when I found myself inside the secret world of the Havana Boxing Academy watching 10 year olds run round the training ground shouting “Victory is your duty, defeat has no justification,” I quickly changed my plans. The boys were a fascinating contrast: Communist fighting machines one minute, tearful kids the next. I knew this was the film I wanted to make. Getting permission to shoot it would be a different matter.
During my first months in Havana, I stayed in a friend’s house, sleeping on an unhinged door which had since become a table in the sitting room. We didn’t know it at the time, but having a foreigner stay in your house without permission is illegal in Cuba. Every block has an organization called a CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) who are, among other things, in charge of ensuring no “counter-Revolutionary” activity is taking place in the neighborhood. Sure enough, the CDR reported my presence in the house to the police, and a chit arrived through the letter-box: “Report to the Police station immediately, with the foreigner who’s staying in your house”. For three successive days we were questioned all morning. The police told us that the crime was “very serious” and indicated that the penalty would be confiscation of the house. Luckily, they eventually let us off with only a warning, but it was a chilling start to my time in Havana, and an early lesson that in Cuba, the rules were different.
In January 2006 I headed back to the UK for an arduous year-long fundraising campaign with my endlessly supportive producer Mandy Chang. Meanwhile Dania Ilisastigui, our Cuban associate producer, steadily worked through the many people who needed to give permission to the project. It was no easy task, but little by little doors opened, and the necessary state organisms gave their blessings. Crucial to her success was our plan to work with a completely Cuban crew. What we intended to film would be quite unprecedented, and just wouldn’t have been possible with more foreigners on site.
Arriving back in Cuba a year later to start the shoot, I could feel tension in the air almost as soon as the plane touched down. Castro had just abdicated power for the first time in 48 years and nobody knew what was happening. “Is he dead?” “Is he coming back?” “Will the Americans invade?” Behind the shuttered windows of the Havana night, the rumor mill had gone into overdrive. “The night they announced his illness,” my Cuban producer told me, “was the quietest night I can ever remember.” Normally the streets of Havana are awash with blaring stereos, people shouting and playing baseball. But that night they were empty, and the capital became a ghost town unified only by the tones of the 8 o’clock TV announcement as everyone crammed round their sets to find out what had happened to “el maximo lider.” Time passed and he still hadn’t re-appeared. New kinds of billboards started to appear alongside the traditional Revolutionary slogans: “Fidel is a Country” they read. New posters were also produced: Within the shape of his capped and bearded outline a sea of Cuban flags were imposed, with the words: “Somos Uno,” — “We are one.” We watched, and waited. In the days preceding his birthday I remember standing on the side of the road into Havana as under dark skies, hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles rolled into the city. All around Revolution square they stood for days in a show of military might. As they rolled past the Anti Imperialist tribune where Fidel should have been sitting they passed a banner saying: “The military of this country is indestructible.” But one of the old Russian tanks broke down in front of the General’s stand. Meanwhile, rumor had it that Garcia Marquez was in town to say goodbye to his old friend, Fidel. It seemed like any minute the end would come.
Together with the crew, I decided that if the Commandante died, we would tell the story through our characters. Over two years, we had built up a very close relationship with the coaches, boys and their parents. It was the key to the raw emotion we were able to capture in so many scenes, and the heartfelt and honest interviews. During the shoot we became like a big family, traveling around to all the tournaments with them, and sharing their dreams. Often, if a child had a problem the parents would ring us for help.
But despite these enjoyable aspects, the shoot was extremely demanding. We were running out of money constantly, and I was often borrowing back salaries paid to the Cubans in order to keep going. I was also acutely aware that at any moment we could lose our shooting permits or our access could be removed. It only needed one official to get cold feet, and the situation with Castro made things all the more tenuous. I heard of two foreign film crews being asked to leave while I was there. It was a huge advantage that we were able to avoid the presence of minders on almost all our shoots, and a testament to the huge trust built up between my Cuban producers and the authorities.
The day-to-day problems of working in Cuba also made things tough: many of the cast and crew didn’t have telephones in their homes, and we were often staying in places where there was no running water or electricity. Even in my flat in Havana there would be two or three day periods without water or electricity. Often, we were extremely tired when we were working, but we could never complain as there was always someone for whom the sacrifice was bigger: the kids. No matter how tough a time we were having, they were having a tougher one.
To train for five hours a day, be constantly hungry, and live in poor conditions is a lot to ask of anyone, let alone a ten-year-old child. We were intensely moved by their struggle, and keenly felt their desperation to make the team for the Nationals. At first I was worried that not enough dramatic scenes would happen in the Academy to be able to make an observational film. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Although only two boys feature in this version of the film, we actually followed five. And as we got into the last month before the Nationals the hunger, pressure, and exhaustion reached such heights that each of the boy’s stories exploded into drama. In those final days it seemed that every moment we spent away from the Academy, we would miss something. When the team for the Nationals was finally announced each of the boys broke down one by one, followed by the coaches. We had tears in our eyes as we shot it. It was an amazing moment to witness.
Although the narrative of our film is structured around the stories of two boys, the real hero of our film is the coach Yhosvani. He was the most dedicated, effective, and caring teacher I have ever come across. In conditions that most people would find unbearable I never once heard him complain or saw him lose enthusiasm. The joy of making these films is discovering these kinds of people and telling their stories. To me, they are bigger stars than you’d ever find in a Hollywood film. Like so many Cubans, Yhosvani’s salary was nowhere near enough to cover his necessities. He earned a standard state wage of about $15 a month. To put this into perspective, cooking oil (an essential part of Cuban cuisine) costs $2. Cubans have a ration book to cover some of their basic needs, but what it provides is not enough to live on. After using up his small amount of rationed cooking oil, someone on Yhosvanni’s salary would have to work for four days to be able to buy a replacement bottle. In order to survive almost every Cuban has had to develop an incredible resourcefulness: the black market plays a prominent role in many lives, as does an ability to repair absolutely anything (just look at the old cars which still dominate Cuban streets). People also exchange services a lot: You help me out with this, and I’ll help you out with that. Pulling together like this is really the only way to survive. As a result, I found Cubans to be incredibly generous and welcoming. At every house we filmed in, the families bent over backwards to make us comfortable, often blowing a large part of their monthly earnings on putting a meal on the table for us.
But despite this warmth and joy, there’s often sadness behind the smile. Many families are separated, with loved ones living abroad, and almost all are struggling to survive. These are the continuing effects of the collapse of global Communism, from which Cuba is yet to recover. I remember asking Yhosvani what his greatest pride was. “Being a father,” he replied. “And your greatest disappointment?” “Not being able to provide for my children.” I think many Cubans would echo this sentiment.
Yhosvani invested huge trust in us. He let us film absolutely everything and trusted that we’d use the material fairly. Although Cubans know and support their top boxers, few know the training they go through from a young age to get there. Yhosvani, and all of the Cuban crew, wanted that story see the light of day. If possible, we’d like to produce a longer version of this film for cinema release in Cuba. Cubans enjoy cinema like no other nation on earth, often shouting at the characters on screen as the story develops. I can imagine them cheering our boys on and sharing their stories, as we did over five unforgettable months. It was an enormous privilege.
Back at the final of the National Championships the end bell has rung and our protagonist Cristian has his eyes fixed on the judges’ table as he awaits their decision. Will he fulfill his two-year ambition and be crowned champion of Cuba? I zoom in on his mother’s hand as it shakes uncontrollably with the tension of the moment. It’s a wonder that my camera isn’t doing the same thing: Over two years we’ve seen how much Cristian has sacrificed to reach this moment. He’s effectively given up his childhood to fight for Cuba. Victory is his duty. Does he win? You’ll have to see the film.