14 August 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
“The little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdî, found alone on a Turkish beach. That could have been Elián” – Producer Trevor Birney on ‘Elián’ Documentary
03 May 2017 : Katie McNeice
Elián speaks with Fidel Castro, July 2001
The Fine Point Films producer had the film in mind for seventeen years before he brought the story of Elián Gonzalez to life with directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell.

The project follows the ripple effect caused when a young boy was found drifting in the Florida straits on Thanksgiving Day 1999, and became a pivot around which the tense dialogue on US-Cuban relations revolved.

‘Elián’ premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and is currently in the HotDocs line-up in Canada. We caught up with the busy producer on his journey with the project, the relevance of this boy’s story today, and how audiences have connected with the film so far.

Birney’s other recent projects include ‘George Best: All By Himself’ (Daniel Gordon) and ‘Bobby Sands: 66 Days’ (Brendan J. Byrne).

IFTN: Before we get into the big story that is your festival run, can you tell me how you first got involved with the project, and what your journey with it has been like?
“It’s been with me for the past 17 years - I just never thought I would have the opportunity to be involved in the film! I followed the story of Elián as it unfolded on television back home in Belfast.

"I was waiting for the documentary that told the full story but it just never appeared. I was in Cuba on the day President Obama was elected working on a TG4 series and I began to ask about Elián then - what had happened to him? It was only four years ago when we set up Fine Point Films that we began to seriously develop the idea and when our friend and colleague, Alex Gibney came on board the project began to take off. It’s been a long journey!”

IFTN: ‘Elián’ premiered on Friday, April 21st at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Can you tell us what the reception was like and how it’s been received at HotDocs this week?
“The premiere was the culmination of four years of work by everyone at Fine Point Films and at Jigsaw in New York. It was very emotional for everyone who’d been on the film from the outset - who’d witnessed the ups and downs of trying to raise the finance and getting access to the key characters. The screenings at Tribeca were fantastic - full houses and really engaging Q&As. For Americans, the story they remember is different. Its Cuba. Communism. That’s never far from the surface but I hope that we have challenged the prejudices about Cuba and about Elián and how he has grown up.

“Hotdocs is a part of the Fine Point family. We premiered Bobby Sands: 66 Days here last year and we have so many friends here. Coming back for the screening was like visiting old friends. The fact that we have a film here for the second year in a row is fantastic. Last night, 'Elián' and 'In Loco Parentis' screened back-to-back at the same theatre - so it was a great night for Irish filmmakers.”

IFTN: Were there any others in the Irish presence you know?
“Teresa McGrane and Lesley McKimm from Irish Film Board were both at the Tribeca premiere. Our Executive Producer, Brendan J. Byrne was there along with our wives and our Assistant Producer, Oisin Kearney who is now in the jungles of Colombia directing his first film. “

IFTN: One of the unique selling points of the project is access to the now twenty-three year old Elián Gonzalez; how did the team gain this access?
“It was a lot of hard work on both sides of the Atlantic. We approached the Cuban Ambassador in Dublin, Hermes Herrera and sought his advice and support. He was very helpful and encouraging throughout the production of the film. There were others in Ireland who knew Cuba well who also offered us sound advice.

“But ultimately, it was the Gonzalez family who agreed to meet us in June 2015 and agreed to take part almost right from the off. It took us several months to get the finance together and get our visas. The Cuban government always advised us: this is a decision for Elián and his family. And they stuck to their word. Once Elián and his father agreed, there were no obstacles placed in our way or interference in our work. 

IFTN: You’ve mentioned before how timely this film is in terms of the US-Cuba relationship, especially given the current dialogue on immigration worldwide. Has seeing an American audience experience the film evolved your opinion on this in any way?
“Elián survived but he just as easily could have become a statistic, just like those children we’ve all seen washed up on the beaches of the Mediterranean in the past few years. We all recall the devastating picture of the little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdî, found alone on a Turkish beach. That could have been Elián. For Americans, the Cuban rafters were trying to get to freedom in the US; but for Cubans the American policy of giving Cubans special immigration status was a magnetic pull that caused many young people to risk their lives in the Florida Straits.

“There’s no doubt that US policy cost many lives, including Elián’s mother and the others who died. I’m not sure Americans fully appreciate how their internal politics, and particularly pandering to a small demographic such as the Cuban Americans in South Florida, can have such devastating impact. What Trump does next in terms of Cuban policy is obviously very worrying.”

IFTN: Might it also be fair to say that, given divisions about British rule and the memories of the famine, Irish audiences may also connect with this story in a unique, if not complicated way?
“I do believe that Irish audiences will find a connection with the story. We have a close relationship with Cuba - President Higgins' recent visit underscoring the links between the two countries. Cuba is an island nation with a difficult history with its imperious neighbour, of course the parallels are there and it was one of the reasons we were attracted to the story in the first place.

“But I think on a human level, this is a story of a young boy who was turned into a political puppet by Cuban-Americans who were resistant to change. This was their last, final heave at Castro and it failed.  What we see in the film is a confident, articulate 23-year-old who has been nurtured by his family and by the Cuban people and has grown up to be a strong young man determined not to be a captive of his past but to be the master of his own destiny. His story is only beginning.”

IFTN: For those of us who haven’t seen it yet I have two questions; firstly what can we expect in terms of style, and secondly when can we expect to see ‘Elián’ screened in Ireland?
“The film is rich with the wonderful visuals created by Ross McDonnell. He captured Cuba in all its glory and the close relationship he built with Elián and his family provides audiences with a unique insider view of their lives today. We were in Cuba together for the visit of President Obama and the first ever concert by The Rolling Stones. Ross captures Cuba at this moment of change with the most amazing pictures. We’re looking forward to bringing ‘Elián’ home soon and hope that it’ll play at a festival in the months ahead.”

Barry Ward on Acting
Joe Murtagh on Writing
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