Victory is Your Duty shows vivid contrasts in Cuba's national boxing program, between dreams and daily hardship, poetry and poverty.
If there's not a championship, there's nothing.
-- Luis Felipe Martínez
"In Cuba," says Aaron Brown, "They talk about La Lucha, the fight." The phrase refers to boxing, the nation's most revered sport, but also "the struggle of life itself." This week's episode of Wide Angle, Victory is Your Duty looks at the effects of these interrelated fights on two 10-year-olds, Cristian Martínez and Santos Urguelles. Both are training at the respected Havana Boxing Academy, enduring an arduous regimen in hopes of joining the ranks of Cuba's most famous boxers, including Olympic champions like Cristian's father Luis Felipe Martínez.
The film, a shortened version of Andrew Lang's Sons of Cuba, follows the boys over about eight months, preparing for the National Championships as their City of Havana team anticipates a rematch with longtime rival (and last year's winner), Old Havana. Their schedule is rigorous: they live in six days a week, up at 4:30am in order to attend school (Cuba's literacy rate is close to 100%) and then to work out. Aaron Brown narrates over shots of the boys in orderly lines performing calisthenics, "The rivalry is fierce and the pressure on the boys is intense." Cristian appears on screen, boxing at the camera as he says, "To become someone, you have to make sacrifices. If you don’t, you can't become what you want to become." On the wall behind this slender child, a shadow of a heavy bag looms, an emblem of the work to be done.
The film provides such contrasts repeatedly, between dreams and daily hardship, poetry and poverty. Cristian wants to become a champion, a goal encouraged by this nation of 11 million. Boxers have won 32 medals in the past seven Olympic Games, 26 of them gold. A sign in the gym where the boys work out carries a message from their Commandante, Fidel Castro: "Our athletes are and will always be an example." Under his charismatic leadership, national sports programs have been celebrated since the Revolution, their achievements on international stages touted as signs of the government's success. Victory is Your Duty takes a decidedly skeptical view of this narrative, with repeated references to problems in the system. Primary among these is the hard work demanded of the children, who appear very young indeed: "Training grinds on until nightfall," observes the narrator, over images of kids slamming tires with metal rods, and their diet "leaves them perpetually hungry," as they strive to make weight.
Other critiques of the Cuban system are familiar and remain uninvestigated here. Described as "loyalists," Cristian's mother and older brother's discussion of the recruitment of Cuban-born soldiers for the Iraq war is framed by the narrator ("They accept Castro's version of events"). Soldiers are promised U.S. citizenship as a reward for their service, says Cristian's mother, so the "majority of those who go to Iraq are not North American." If her numbers are erroneous, the broader point is not, as citizenship is offered as a reward for service.
Another case against the training program is made by Cristian's father, who, for all the glory he brought to the state, today lives an austere life, with awards tacked to his walls but little else to show for his own service to state. He only won fame, says the narrator, "not fortune." Luis insists he wants a different life for his son, especially, a good education that will give him other options. "I want him to be a kid who's prepared for life," he says, "because sport is a flickering moment." He and Cristian share a meager meal together, smiling and laughing as Luis offers to feed his son by hand, their play a brief instance of fun for Cristian.
For the most part, the boys are shown at work. As Coach Yhosvanai Bonachea puts it, his own injury arrested his career. "All those dreams I couldn’t realize, I'm now investing in my boys." This investment means that he pressures his boys, frequently in this film to the point of tears. As Cristian worries about winning at the National Championships (his final round loss last year contributed to the team's loss to Old Havana and Bonachea's deep disappointment), Santos struggles to make weight, repeatedly criticized by coach for his love of pastries. The boy looks thin, but he's over the limit of his designated weight class, 70 pounds. And so he feels guilty, even as he "likes to eat everything."
Santos' mother died when he was only six, and he has found a sense of identity and some conflict in the boxing academy. The film shows his tears and frustrations, including a difficult discussion with his father, who tells the child he needs to "start looking for a way that you'll be able to help our family in the future... Remember you're all we have. If you don’t help me, we're lost." Santos looks increasingly fragile as his father talks, and by the end of their exchange, he has his head on knees, as if his entire body has given over to the weight of expectations.
As a coda to the film's focus on these two young boys, Wide Angle adds a short piece on Cuban boxers who have defected to the United States. Cristian sums up the party line on such a betrayal: "I believe those boxers didn’t think about our Commandante, they didn’t think about us, who've given them so much support and they let us down completely." A brief interview with Yuriorkis Gamboa, who won the gold medal as a flyweight in the 2004 Olympic Games, suggests that defection has its own problems. Though Gamboa has a house and a very nice car to drive to the gym, he admits he misses his family and community, those who supported him while he trained as a boy. Considered a traitor by the Cuban government, he is now unable to return home.
At the same time, Gamboa's younger brother Yoelvis, a less successful athlete, has found out "just how cruel boxing can be." This cruelty is a story left mostly unexplored here, though certainly recent news from within the sport -- deemed the "month from hell" by relentlessly astute Dave Zirin -- underlines "everything's that rotten in boxing." As hopeful as Cristian appears here, and as happy as he makes his family with his in-ring triumphs, boxing -- whether in Cuba or in the States -- remains an exploitative and grueling enterprise.