Sons of Cuba -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

ROME -- Winner of Best Documentary at the Rome Film Festival, Andrew Lang's "Sons of Cuba," about young Cuban boxers at the prestigious Havana Boxing Academy, is a knockout debut. Affecting and entertaining, it has all the makings of an arthouse hit after it winds up a successful festival run. Television pick-ups and DVD sales will help it receive greater visibility.

Comparisons to "Hoop Dreams" are inevitable, not only because Cubans are to boxing what Americans are to basketball -- they have dominated the Olympics for over 25 years. For that matter, the economic conditions that produce the sports' stars are similar.

More than just a film about the quintessential poor man's sport in an impoverished country, "Sons of Cuba" offers a rare glimpse at a closed society. Lang used his unprecedented access to a Cuban state institution to paint an emotionally charged yet balanced portrait of sacrifice, social hardship and political indoctrination.

Shot in 2006, the film follows three boys at the Academy as they prepare for the 2006 National Boxing Championship of Under-12's, which provides the film's dramatic arc. Their training is grueling and resources scarce at the legendary boarding school, whose boxing hopefuls are all black.

The boys wake up at 4 a.m. to a meager breakfast before training, going to classes and training again in the afternoon. They use old tires for punching bags. When they need to drop weight before competitions, they crawl under wooden steps to sit in a "sauna."

The boys, who are allowed to see their families once a week, are taught they are the torch-bearers of the Fidel Castro's Revolution, often repeating his words to psych themselves up: "Fatherland or death, we will win!"

But they're also kids. The tension and pressure for victory leads to frequent tears, just one of the many contradictions that makes this documentary heartbreaking and thought provoking.

The filmmakers were handed additional subplots on a silver platter when, in 2006, Fidel Castro ceded power as Cuba's longtime leader and three of the country's top boxers (all gold medalists at the 2004 Athens Olympics) defected to the U.S.

"Sons of Cuba" wisely offers no external political commentary, letting situations speak for themselves. The Academy coach calls his youngsters "comrades," children still hold school shows identical to those in Eastern Europe of decades ago and an invitation to walk in the May Day Parade is a great honor.

Venue -- Rome Film Festival

Production companies: Windfall Films, Sons of Cuba Ltd.
Director: Andrew Lang
Producers: Lang, Francine Heywood, Laura Giles, Mandy Chang
Directors of photography: Lang, Domingo Triana Machin
Music: Jack Ketch
Editor: Simon Rose
Sales: ro*co films international
No rating, 90 minutes