The documentary Elián posits the story of five-year-old Elián González, rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999 after attempting to leave Cuba with his mother (who drowned) — along with its aftermath — as the birth of the 24-hour news cycle. But what’s most striking here is how the story, in vintage clips, suggests reality TV. We watch strangers cry and faint as they carry signs and chant for Elián to stay in the U.S. González’s cousin Marisleysis, who cared for the boy during his time in Miami, launches into an on-camera tirade against the boy’s father, Juan Miguel González, who wanted Elián back with him in Cuba.
The Elián of the old footage appears dazed. No one close to the boy seemed to understand that a five-year-old who had just lost his mother and nearly died himself might need his father and some therapy more than relentless publicity and trips to Disney World.
The film shows some of what the news reports missed. The people the right-wing Cuban-American community in Miami painted as villains seem frailer than I remembered: Even when she clasps her hands, Attorney General Janet Reno can’t stop the tremors from the Parkinson’s disease that would kill her. And Fidel Castro is more like an ailing, argumentative, long-winded grandfather than an all-powerful nemesis.
We see “fisherman” (actually a housecleaner) Donato Dalrymple, who “rescued” Elián (Dalrymple’s cousin was the one who got the boy out of the water), in close proximity to the González family, trying to become something like the first reality TV star. (Survivor would debut in May of 2000.) In one shot he says his name and then eagerly asks reporters, “You want me to spell it?” Dalrymple did achieve a kind of fame: In the Pulitzer Prize–winning photo of the raid on the González household, he was the one holding the boy.
The film assumes a familiarity with the story most won’t have, leaving out crucial details: Marisleysis (twenty-one at the time) strongly implied to reporters that the González household had guns and would use them to keep Elián. So the government sending heavily armed agents for the raid seems more like common sense than a Big Brother scenario.
The same Cuban-American organizations that had protested softened after the raid to become part of the process that improved relations between Cuba and the U.S. during the Obama administration. But the main characters are resolute. Marisleysis says she won’t go to Cuba (unrestricted travel from the U.S. was restored in 2016) to visit Elián because to do so would be a “betrayal” to his mother, a woman she never met or communicated with. The now twenty-three-year-old Elián tells us he’s not religious but if he were, he would worship Fidel Castro.
The story continues to elicit strong emotion: After a Tribeca screening, two women argued loudly about whether Elián should have stayed. Meanwhile Elián, still a celebrity in Cuba, might pursue a political career there. We see the resilience of the adult Elián when he takes a swim near a Cuban beach: After all he’s endured, he’s not afraid of the water.
Directed by Tim Ross and Ross McDonnell
Opens May 12, Cinema Village