INTERVIEW: Director: Andrew Lang
The documentary ‘Sons Of Cuba’ tells the remarkable story behind the Havana Boxing Academy in Cuba, which has produced countless Olympic champions. Director Andrew Lang was granted exclusive access to the academy that has helped Cuba dominate Olympic boxing for the past 25 years. Lang’s film follows three young children as they train for the Under 12s category at the National Boxing Championships, what happens when Cuban leader Fidel Castro is taken ill and the country’s Olympic boxing champions defect to the USA. As the pressure grows, the young fighters discover that the fights are not just in the ring…
Cuba is famous for Fidel Castro, communism and cigars. How did you discover its remarkable track record in Olympic boxing?
I became quite interested around the time of the 2004 Olympics. Amir Khan lost to a Cuban in the final – Mario Kindelan. There was lots of press around the Cuban boxing team, who won five gold medals at that Olympics. I read this interview with Kindelan and interviewer asked why Cubans were so good at boxing. Kindelan said Cubans are fighters in all works of life. I knew from other stuff how tough life was, so I thought boxing would be the perfect way to look at the fight for survival in Cuba.
How hard was it to persuade the authorities to let you film in Cuba?
It was really difficult. I worked with a completely Cuban crew. I had these amazing Cuban fixers, who really believed in the project. They found ways for us to make this film. We had to frame it as a Cuban production. It was presented to the authorities under the title ‘Champions Of The Future’. I wasn’t the director, as we presented it to the authorities. I was an observer and my fixer was the director. It worked.
How long were you there for?
I was there for about ten months, over two years.
The regime seems pretty tough for the kids. What was an average day like for them?
They get up at 4am and train for two hours in the dark. Then they go to school, get out of school at 4pm and train again for two hours. Then they are in bed and lights out for nine. Then they get up the next day to do it all over again. They do this six days a week. They get home occasionally at weekends, but if they are near competitions then they stay at the academy for weeks on end.
You focus on three children in the film. How did you choose them?
They were all from similar backgrounds and had similar dreams. We just went for people who had a lot of personality and strong stories. We started off with a long list of seven. We filmed five and then when we edited we got rid of two.
You were also there when Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell ill and ceded power. How did that affect the people around you?
People were very nervous. The information being released was very limited and controlled, so Havana was rife with rumours. The military were very nervous. They closed off the middle of Havana. Big banners were put up saying if anyone tries to invade, the army were going to fight them. It was a really interesting time to be in Cuba.
How integral is communism to the daily way of life in Cuba?
You can’t set up a business. You can’t sell anything. You can’t have a friend to stay if they are a foreigner. Life is lived by very strict rules. It’s one of the most crippling things.
Why have the authorities spend so much time cultivating these boxing champions?
Everything that’s happened since the Cuban revolution has Fidel at the centre of it. He was a keen sportsman himself. It’s often said that if people like Fidel and Che Guevara had not played sport, then they would not have been able to wage the revolutionary war. So, as soon as the revolution triumphed in 1959, they started setting up sporting programmes. They believed what they spent in sport they would save in medical costs. Secondly, they believed in having a population able to fight any invasion. And thirdly, it’s a way of being political in an arena which is not supposed to be political, and show the prowess of the country. It’s the same way that people used to say the Soviets used sports.
What’s the secret of their success?
They just start them very young. There’s this amazing pyramid system, not only in boxing, but also in other sports like baseball. There are hundreds of clubs all other the island, and, from those local clubs, the best of the best go to academies. From the academies, the best go to national training centres. It’s a way of sieving through every child.
Did you pick up any boxing tips yourself?
I wasn’t really that into boxing as a sport. I was more interested in boxing as a way of learning about Cuba! Inevitably, when you are living around it 24/7 you do learn a bit about it!
While you were out there, several Cuban boxing champions defected. What happened there?
I met those boxers in Miami last summer. They were upset that they were Cuban Olympic champions and they were given $500 each as prize money. Of course, $500 does not go very far! They spent their money and then sold their Olympic medals on the black market. When they were on tour in Venezuela, the Cuban team announced they would take down their allowance to $10 a day. These three Olympic champions just decided to leg it. They got on a flight to Columbia, as Cuba and Venezuela are good friends. They ended up in Miami, eventually.
Were the kids back home aware of what was going on?
They don’t know much. When anyone defects from Cuba, the main policy is that they are never spoken about again. The kids know they have defected, but they don’t know why, where or how. If they ask anyone, they are just told they are traitors. If we had made the film with kids a couple of years older, they might not have been 100% behind the ideology.
Will the Cuban boxers kick our arses in 2012?
It’s getting tougher and tougher for them. So many boxers now want to defect. I think the glory days of Cuban boxing might be over, but having said that, there is such a constant stream of boxers being produced. It will last for a bit longer.
Similar Special Features
Of course, we are here to wax lyrical about the wonders of world cinema, to
give hope to crestfallen film fans left jaded by template-rom-coms, reboots…
The Deep, Iceland’s recently shortlisted Academy Award nominee, is a
classic examination of man vs. nature; it also explores how one man survives…
Director Leena Yadav is one of a new breed of directors working in India,
combining traditional storytelling and cutting edge production values. Her…