Boxers and Ballerinas
It´s not the first movie dealing with the subject of Cuban emigration. “To stay or not to stay” and “return or not to return” are the central questions of Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment), Miel para Ochun (Honey for Ochun), Nada (Nothing) and several others produced by the prestigious Cuban Institute of Cinematography (ICAIC).
This same subject has been a major topic in films by directors from the United States, Spain, etc.
In fact, a prize winning documentary in the 2002 edition of Havana’s International New Latin American Film Festival in the category of foreign films about Latin America in 2002 went to “Balseros,” a history of the high sea drama, triumphs and frustrations of a group of seven Cubans who finally arrive to Miami in search for the American dream
However, what is special about Boxers and Ballerinas is that its young US co-directors and four main characters, Cubans, are all of a generation born at least 20 years after the Cuban Revolution of January 1, 1959 and who for the most part, have lived since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the socialist camp. The film premiered on December 8 at the 26th New Latin American Film Festival taking place through December 17.
Boxers and Ballerinas, 94 minutes long and produced on a budget of only $100,000, was presented in the category of news documentaries and shown at Havana’s 23rd & 12th St. Cinema to a packed crowd of some 300 viewers. Before the showing, directors Brit Mailing, 21, and Mike Cahill, 24, thanked the Cuban people for their cooperation in the making of the movie and commented that their experiences in Cuba in 2003 and 2004 changed their lives forever.
The movie is about the life of two boxers and two ballerinas separated from their counterparts by the sea, a trade blockade and different aspirations and concepts of homeland. At play in their life decisions are aspects of what is known in Cuba as the “Battle of Ideas,” emphasizing humanistic values, the development of well-rounded culture and cooperation between people – as opposed to excessive individualism, hyper-consumerism and aggressive efforts by the US government to manipulate Cuban society, especially its youth.
The decisions of talented Latin American athletes, artists and professionals who opt to seek fame and fortune in the United States are not a new phenomenon, nor peculiar to Cuba.
In the documentary, Sergio —a 21 year-old Havana-born boxer living in Miami- enjoys the migratory privilege of all Cubans who make it to the Florida coast. As opposed to other illegal immigrants from the Third World, under the Cuban Adjustment Act, they can obtain residency and right to work as soon as they touch US soil.
Also in Miami is Paula, 21, who took advantage of a trip abroad with her mother, a famous ballerina. The two dancers end up staying in the US.
Both Sergio and Paula attempt to excel in their respective fields in Miami, as they struggle to maintain their dreams of greatness. They soon discover the hard realities of the two professions where careers are short and any accident or mishap can mean the end.
Not being a US citizen disqualifies Sergio from hoping to represent his new country in the Olympic Games. He opts to enter the rough and tumble world of professional boxing. Paula, on her part, chooses to help her mother form a ballet company, no easy task.
Ninety miles away, Yordenis, a 17 year-old boxer from Santiago de Cuba who lives in Havana, dreams of being an Olympic champion. On his return to his hometown for a national youth championship, it is clear that his family, friends and neighbors are solidly behind him. He lives and breathes boxing and, for the time being, has no ambition of abandoning his country.
Another Cuban character, 19 year-old Annia, wants to be one of the best ballerinas in Cuba. Like Paula, Sergio and Yordenis, she is very disciplined, following years of rigorous training. She wants to travel the world, like most youths around the globe, and she hopes to achieve that dream through dance. After a long wait she leaves with their company for an extended tour in Mexico, where she reflects on her life and longings.
Boxers and Ballerinas has all the essentials to be a success, despite its low budget. The two directors did practically everything including the shooting and excellent editing. The photography and photomontage are also very good, just as the sound and the selection of sites for filming. Another strength of the film is its capacity to constantly maintain a tension and desire to see the next scene.
In the use of historical material, the directors chose to spotlight the terrorist attack on a Cuban passenger airplane in 1976 in which 73 people died. Those killed included the entire fencing team that had just won the gold medal in the Pan-American Games. The intense pain of the massacre felt by all Cuba is as sharp today as if the tragedy had occurred yesterday, as was expressed in the tears which welled up throughout the cinema.
Sequences showing the defiant attitude of the act’s ringleader, Orlando Bosch, and the complicity of the US government, that allows Bosch to continue conspiring against Cuba from Miami demonstrate the cruelty and terror that accompany the blockade. These are challenges that the island has had to confront ever since it declared itself free and independent.
The directors said they were very happy with having the initial public presentation of their movie at the Havana Film Festival. It is only a shame that Boxers and Ballerinas was only shown once. Although the movie was not part of the formal film competition its young directors and producer deserve special recognition for their effort to tackle a highly complicated and politicized issue from a new angle.