Interview with british director Andrew Lang
Sons of Cuba director Andrew Lang speaks about infiltrating the Cuban institution of child boxing.
With the award-winning child boxing documentary, Sons of Cuba, in cinemas, LWLies speaks to British director Andrew Lang about the difficulties he faced gaining access to the boxing academy, a Cuban institution, and the struggle to remain objective when dealing with nervous authorities in a time of great political upheaval.
LWLies: Is boxing something you’ve always been in to as a sport or cinematic subject?
Lang: My personal interest in boxing really came about after the 2004 Olympics with Amir Khan, who was the darling of the British public at the time. Everyone got so into that over that summer. He fought a Cuban in the final – Mario Kindelan, and lost. In that same Olympics the Cubans won four gold medals for boxing and four of five silver, and so suddenly there was a lot of press about Cuban boxing. In one article a journalist said to Kindelan, ‘Why are Cubans so good at boxing?’ He said, ‘Ours is a small country, but we live to fight. We are fighters in every walk of life.’ And I thought, ‘Well that’s interesting. Maybe I can do a film about Cuba through boxing.’ I’d read a lot about Cuba. They have this expression in Cuba that is ‘La Lucha’ which means ‘the fight,’ as in the fight for survival on a daily basis. On a wider level, boxing is kind of like the ultimate challenge isn’t it? You’ve got rules, and you’ve got gloves and you might even have a head guard on but you’re basically standing up in front of another man and you’re trying to hurt each other, and that’s like the ultimate test of your courage and I guess your manhood, and that is inherently incredibly cinematic and possesses incredible possibility for drama.
When you came to edit the film, were you influenced at all by boxing movies or were always focused in providing a documentary focus?
I was a little influenced by the whole genre of competition documentaries which follow someone taking part in some contest. There is a film called Blue Blood about boxing at Oxford University which I watched a couple of times, and I watched When We Were Kings, but I wouldn’t have said that was an influence. So no I don’t think I was excessively referencing boxing movies. To be honest, I was thinking more along the lines of referencing a Chilean documentary maker called Patricia Guzman, who goes for a very emotional line in his documentaries. I was referencing more that kind of feel.
Watching the film was a very emotional experience, as much as a feature film. Was that a conscious objective then?
Yeah, absolutely. We wanted to make it a big screen experience. I think it’s nicely shot for a doc, but it’s obviously not a feature film on that level. But I think you can go on a number of different paths with a film and I think normally documentaries go on some intellectual path where some argument is unravelling and you’re learning something new about the world or you are being told something, and actually our primary aim in this was just to get really strong feelings. I think that’s closer to a fiction film. On the radio the other day they had some interviews with some of the people involved in Avatar and I suddenly noticed they were all talking about the emotional affect of the music or this and that, and I realised with fiction that seems to be okay but with documentary people expect you to develop some argument. I think that this is a mistake in documentary for people to need to learn something. You do learn things in this film, but it’s not making a point, it’s not hammering home a point. It’s more meant to be a rich emotional experience and something you draw your own conclusions from.
You genuinely feel you gain an insight into Cuban culture without an overt agenda or comment being apparent. In saying that, I have seen documentaries before that, in their attempt to provide an emotional experience have actually been exploitative of their subjects. Was that ever a concern?
Yeah definitely, I think particularly with the fine political balance that we had to tread with this film. We didn’t want it to be propaganda on either side. Of course, the editor is such a key part of forming a documentary, almost like a second director, and we were in the edit for about six month trying to work out what the story was and gaining that balance.
How much footage did you have all together?
About 130 hours, something like that. And it does take a long time to get through that. But, because we weren’t Cuban we did not want to say things that would upset Cubans and one of the most encouraging things about this film is seeing Cubans react to it and Cubans saying to us that we got it right.
You’ve said that you spent a lot of time dealing with the authorities. Was there ever a sense that you were appeasing their wishes too much? Were you scared you’d lose autonomy as a film-maker?
No. It was really remarkable. It was so hard to get the access and the permission to shoot. I had a fixer working on it for about a year before we arrived to start properly. I got residency in Cuba. We told the authorities that I was an observer and my fixer was the director. We worked with a Cuban crew so they thought it was a Cuban production. The film was called ‘Champions of the Future’ in the eyes of the Cuban authorities but the access was still very tentative. I was always worried we were going to lose it. Having said that, when we first got permission to shoot they said we were going to have a minder with us all the time watching what we shoot, and I said to my fixers, ‘We can’t have that. I can’t make the film we want to make with that.’ So they went off and they spoke to them and somehow struck a deal where they would go every two weeks to tell what had been shot. They obviously didn’t tell the whole truth because even if we told them we were filming kids with holes in their shoes or kids crying, we would have been off limits. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Cuban television, it’s all incredibly positive. But somehow we were able to shoot exactly what we wanted to because we didn’t have to show anyone any of the footage.
Do you think the Cuban people are aware of the artifice of Cuban propaganda and the pervasive influence the authorities have on their lives?
Totally. You don’t get much a sense of that in the film because the kids in it are so young they haven’t started to question things yet, but give those kids another couple of years… The majority of the adults, unless they’ve been totally brainwashed, know that most of that stuff is rubbish.
Why did you choose Cuba? Have you been traveling there for a long time?
No, not at all. I was interested in Cuban cinema and New Latin American cinema as a movement. I got really obsessed when I was at Uni with a Chilean director called Patricio Guzmán who made a movie called Battle of Chile, all about the Allende revolution. Cuba was the home of the Latin American movement, and there were all these amazing Cuban films in the sixties like Santiago Alvarez and people like that. And then I found there was a school of New Latin American cinema in Havana set up by Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds amazing.’ So I went out there and did a short course, and then after the course I found this story.