Elián documentary revisits painful chapter in Cuban-American history

Just after dawn on Thanksgiving Day 1999, two South Florida fishermen scanned the ocean and saw what one thought was a “sick joke”: a doll tied to an inner tube.

But when they saw a hand move, Donato Dalrymble and his cousin Sam Ciancio rushed to rescue what turned out to be a 5-year-old boy whose mother and 10 others perished when the small aluminum boat a group of 14 had used to flee Cuba began to take on water.

Thus began the saga of Elián González, the so-called “Thanksgiving miracle.”

Elián, as he would simply be known, became caught up in a bitter international custody battle between his Miami relatives and his Cuban father, who said his son had been taken from the island without his permission. But it soon grew into an epic feud that rubbed Miami raw and polarized many families.

On one side was a large segment of the exile community for whom the boy symbolized their own desperate search for freedom and a dead mother’s wishes for a better future for her son. On the other was a father’s right to be reunited with his son and raise him as he saw fit even if it meant sending the boy back to a country then firmly controlled by Fidel Castro.

Now, as a new chapter of Cuba-U.S. relations unfolds, a documentary revisits the painful drama that began in Miami but soon stretched from Washington to Havana when Castro became personally involved in the custody battle and rallied the Cuban masses to demand Elián’s return. People from all over the globe were riveted by the story.

Elián, the film, mines hundreds of hours of archival news footage from both sides of the Florida Straits, as well as home videos, and revisits key players. It includes extensive interviews with Elián, now a 23-year-old industrial engineering graduate and a member of the Young Communists Union; his father, Juan Miguel González; and Marisleysis González, Elián’s cousin who cared for him and became a mother figure to him after his arrival in Miami.

The documentary debuted April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, almost 17 years to the day when federal agents staged a predawn raid, bursting into the González home and seizing the boy so he could be returned to his father. Elián was shown again Thursday at the Cinepolis Chelsea in New York and is up for an audience award when the festival closes Sunday.

On May 19, it will open at theaters in New York and possibly Los Angeles before rolling out to the rest of the country. It’s expected to arrive in Miami in early June, but no dates have been finalized yet. The documentary also will air on CNN later this year.

In the film, Marisleysis, then just 21 years old, is seen in an old news clip crying at the prospect of Elián returning to Cuba. “His mom (Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez, who was divorced from Juan Miguel) died for him,” she says. She also invited Juan Miguel, a member of the Communist Party, to join his son in Miami and “be free, as well.”

Producer Trevor Birney, a Belfast-based documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist, said it took about three years of effort before producers finally achieved a breakthrough in getting the crucial first interviews with Elián and his father in 2015.

They went to the little Varadero bar where Juan Miguel works and spoke with him. “I saw this young man walking through a park toward us, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s Elián,’ ” said Birney, the founder and director of Fine Point Films. Birney and co-director Ross McDonnell, a photographer and cinematographer, did the interviews with Elián and his father, and McDonell returned to Cuba to update their work after the election of President Donald Trump and death of Fidel Castro in late November.

Marisleysis also sat for her first in-depth interview since the days after Elián was swept from her life. She consented late in the process and flew to New York around last Thanksgiving to record her interview. “She was very reluctant. It took a great deal of convincing that we would tell her story fairly and with respect,” said Tim Golden, the writer and co-director of the CNN Films documentary.

The filmmakers also spoke with her father, Lázaro, and late uncle Delfín, who also fought to keep Elián in the United States, but were not able to interview them for the film.

“It was amazing to me that nobody had ever gone back to this subject — as big and important an issue as it was — not just for the Cuban-American community or U.S.-Cuba relations, but even as a watershed media event,” said Golden, a former Miami Herald and New York Times reporter who first became acquainted with the family when he wrote a profile of them for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine in 2000.

The story played out at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and was almost a precursor to reality TV, said Golden, as reporters, photographers and videographers camped out in front of the González home to document Elián’s every move while politicians, activists, lawyers and an avalanche of toys arrived on a daily basis.

For some in Miami, the film may seem a bit like picking at a scab that hasn’t healed quite right. And they will likely wince when they hear Elián say that while he has no particular religious beliefs, if he did, “My God would be Fidel.”

“We understood that people felt a great deal of passion about this, and we’ve done everything we could to be respectful of those feelings,” Golden said. “It’s a story that some people probably haven’t yet fully processed, and we hope the film will have some value in helping the broader Cuban family to heal.”

The challenge, he said, was to tell a story about antagonistic political forces in a way that was fair to both.

Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami Film Festival, followed the making of the film because executive producer Alex Gibney (2008 Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God), is an alum of the Miami festival and because the subject matter was so important to Miami.

He said he finds the film fair and balanced with a “remarkably even split of screen time between the two perspectives.”

As he watched it, he said, “It brought back the anger, frustration and hurt” that those living in Miami at the time experienced. “It got my heart pounding, then I found myself asking who the anger was really directed at. There were just so many things people were angry about.”

But he said Miami is now a far different place than it was in 2000. The film “explores a key milestone in the Miami-Havana relationship. It’s important to look at the incident now through the lens of history and ask ourselves what we have learned and where we are going,” Laplante said.

He’s unsure how the film will be received in Miami but thinks it’s important for the community to revisit the tumultuous days of 1999 and 2000 and discuss what happened.

Said Golden: “We wanted to look at how this very resilient and well-meaning Cuban family became almost instantly swept up in the broader geopolitical struggle, but we also wanted to explore the more universal experience of how people grow up absorbing and sometimes becoming trapped in their political narratives.”

Like many Cuban families, the González family split after the Cuban Revolution, with some going into exile in the United States and others remaining in Cuba. But relatives still kept in touch. So when Juan Miguel realized his son was missing, the family members in Miami were the people he called for help.

As the saga developed and more and more people got involved, those in Miami began to question Juan Miguel’s love for Elián and the bitter tug-of-war began.

The documentary raises questions about who possesses the truth of a story that mirrors so many other stories of exile, families torn apart and dashed dreams. Near the beginning, the narrator says: “This is a story of a little boy from Cuba whose mother died bringing him to freedom in the United States. Or maybe it’s the story of a boy shipwrecked in Miami whose Cuban father just wanted him back. It was always supposed to be Elián’s story — although a lot of other people would try to make it their own.”

The documentary also captures a bewildered little boy who was too young to speak for himself. On camera, Elián says he remembers little of his time in Miami. “Everything was confusing,” he says, adding that he was shy and didn’t want to meet the constant flow of people coming to the house.

The González family was criticized as the media circus grew both inside and outside their home. Some said Elián was being used as a pawn in the struggle between exiles and Castro as the Cuban American National Foundation, with the help of prominent politicians, became involved in the fight to keep the boy in the United States.

Years later, as he stares into the camera, Juan Miguel says a family’s love is worth more than income level or lifestyle.

Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who was one of the lawyers for the Miami family, said they had “zero training” in how to deal with the media onslaught as well as the constant demonstrators outside their door.

Ultimately, late Attorney General Janet Reno decided the boy should be removed from the Little Havana home on the heels of an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Elián should stay in the United States until his Miami relatives could appeal for an asylum hearing for him. After the appellate court ruled that they couldn’t file for asylum on the boy’s behalf, the case went to the Supreme Court, which declined to review it on June 28, 2000.

That same day Elián and his father were on a plane back to Cuba.

For the most part, Elián was sheltered from the media spotlight after he returned to the island, but his boyhood was not that of a typical Cuban boy. Fidel Castro visited him on his birthdays, bearing gifts, and when Castro became too ill to attend the boy’s birthday in 2006, his brother Raúl went.

In the footage, “you see him growing up almost as Fidel’s grandson — and with Fidel celebrating the symbol of his victory over the exiles, but also seeming to become very emotionally invested in his personal relationship with Elián,” said Golden.

In the end, the film offers hope that perhaps someday the family rift will heal. As a grown man, Elián says Marisleysis least deserves his anger. She was little more than a girl herself and tried to give him the love he was missing, he says.

Marisleysis also is forgiving.

“I say he is not at fault for what he has become. He doesn’t know any better. I don’t judge him. I just sit and wait,” she says on camera. “I would love to see him here — even if it is just for a visit.”

For his part, Elián says he would “love to see them all” — but only if they give his father the respect and “apology he deserves.” If his own reconciliation could help with the reconciliation of other Cubans, “I would be willing and proud for that to happen.”

Elián also says he feels responsibility to the Cuban people for bringing him home and wants to make them proud. “The Cuban people made me their family, their son,” he says. “When the Cuban people need me, I will be there.”

The film ends as Elián’s story began: in the ocean. Elián is swimming in turquoise Caribbean waters as amorphous as his own future.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

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