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The political battle over Cuban rafter boy Elián González is the focus of new documentary film

When the five-year-old was rescued off the Florida coast in 1999 he became the center of an international custody battle that pitted family members against one another and tested U.S. foreign policy at a crucial moment in history. Now 23, González talks in a documentary film about his experience and the changing nature of U.S.-Cuba relations.
17 May 2017 – 03:00 PM EDT
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"You may remember me, maybe not," says Elián González, now 23, describing the international child custody case that he was caught up in 16 years ago.

Aged five, Elián was found floating alone on an inner-tube off the shores of Florida on November 25, 1999. He quickly became a symbol in the political battle between Cuba and the United States, a battle that has torn families like his apart.

"What happened to me wasn't a movie. It was a true story," says González, now 23, staring at the camera.

A new documentary, called Elián, is a timely look back at the six-month saga that gripped the world's attention and trapped the little boy in the middle.

Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, with Academy Award winning executive producer Alex Gibney, Elián is in theaters in New York and opens in Miami and Los Angeles June 2.

After González's mother drowned during the voyage to Miami, a legal battle ensued between his father in Cuba, Juan Miguel González, and his relatives in Miami who took him in. Of course, politics got in the way, as the Miami Cubans argued that normal custody rules should not apply and that the boy should not be sent back to the communist-run island.

In Elián, CNN Films explores the question: What became of that little boy?

"The story is so well known but neither Elián nor his father have really had the opportunity to tell [their stories] and explore their memories, their understanding and their concerns about what happened, and the impact it had on their families," says producer Trevor Birney.

“You can look at this as an international custody battle, but it’s so much more,” adds Birney. “Up until the point of Elián González’s story, for 40 years Cuban diplomats and American diplomats weren’t on the same side. They almost never talked about solving differences from the same perspective or with same goals. Elián was the first time Cuban and American diplomats were pointed in the same direction, wanting the same thing.”

Co-director Tim Golden, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who covered the story at the time for the New York Times, was struck how the Elián saga had been largely forgotten, despite being a seminal moment in U.S.-Cuban relations.

“The Elián saga really marked the beginning of the end of the cold war between the U.S. and Cuba,” says Golden.

Cuba was struggling to survive what was known as the Special Period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban American exiles in Miami were also beginning to discover their hardline politics had limits and more voices were beginning to emerge supporting engagement with the communist-run island.

Birney said that when the producers met with González and his family "it was almost the moment they had been waiting for, that they had longed in terms of sharing their memories and their experiences."

Birney and his team went to Varadero, Cuba, three hours from Havana, in 2015, spending several days hoping to speak to González. “We went to the little lakeside bar where Juan Miguel works, and he made us all wonderful piña coladas and spoke to us. I saw this young man walking through a park toward us, and I thought, ‘Oh my god that’s Elián.’ He was on his way to university. He sat down and we chatted, and I said to him, ‘We’re going to make a film, do you want be part of it and tell your story?’ And he said, ‘I’d love to be part of that.’”

Like the Truman Show

Elián the documentary owes its origins to President Barack Obama's election in 2008, says Birney. "My wife and I were in Miami and the next morning I saw an article in the Miami Herald that talked about the demography of the Cuban community in South Florida and how it had changed since the crisis of Elián González," he said.

As the Obama administration began relaxing restrictions on travel to Cuba and remittances sent by relatives, the producers realized it was a good moment to look back at the evolution of relations between the two countries through the eyes of González and his family.

Despite Obama's historic visit to Cuba in 2016 and the restroation of diplomatic relations, deep-rooted political tensions still remain. There is also uncertainty over whether President Donald Trump plans to turn the clock back to a more hostile policy. A major point of the film, Golden argues, is to question "whether it really interests the Cuban family in a broad sense - Cubans in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora in the United States - to return to the old ways that President Trump has threatened."

The film weaves interviews with key figures - González, his father, his cousin Marisleysis González and those who rescued him from the sea, Donato Dalrymple and Sam Ciancio - with archival footage, including speeches by Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton.

Birney describes the documentary as "The Truman Show of Journalism," drawing parallels between the media's obsession with the story and the Jim Carrey film about a man who discovers that his whole life is a TV show.

During the saga, TV trucks were parked outside the Miami home of González's uncle, Lázaro González, for months. "It slowly dawned on the family that someone is watching and their lives are being invaded. There’s a sense of ambivalence about being in that situation, but at the same time, people were encouraging them to feed the beast,” Birney says.

At the time of the ordeal, the era of social media had not yet arrived yet. But by the end of the 1990s the 24-hour news cycle was in full swing. The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial provided a glimpse at what that could look like, but Golden says "there had not yet been an international news story of that magnitude, in which the cameras camped in the peoples' yard to constantly record their daily activities."

And yet in spite of the media's fury, the lives of the main protagonists were lost at the time.

To be sure, the benefit of hindsight allows the filmmakers to provide some much needed revisionist history, both political and personal.

It's a story that has come full circle, says Golden. "It begins with the González family divided between the two countries and the role that geopolitics played in that division. And I think that it argues powerfully that this family on both sides wants to heal those divisions."

Additional reporting by David Adams.

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