75: Operation Peter Pan: Flying Back to Cuba (LAFF 2011)

dir. Estela Bravo, Cuba, 2010, 57 mins

(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)

Operation Peter Pan was a facet of the powder keg that was early 1960s U.S.-Cuban relations, less visible than the Bay of Pigs or the Missile Crisis, but with its own traumatic historical legacy. Supported by the CIA and the Catholic Church, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent by their parents to live in the United States. The children’s parents were spurred in part by reports of a law—later revealed to be a forged false-flag document—that the revolutionary government would take their children and send them to Soviet re-education camps. Although many of the kids were later reunited with their families, others were separated from their parents and siblings and sent to live in orphanages and foster homes. A half-century later these Peter Pan children, well into adulthood, still struggle with the consequences of the operation.

American filmmaker Estela Bravo documents that struggle in Operation Peter Pan: Flying Back to Cuba, tracking down both the people involved in organizing the operation and the children who were sent to live in the United States. Bravo is entirely unconcerned with presentation: The movie is mostly talking heads shot on low-grade digital video backed by a sentimental score, an aesthetic package that’s reminiscent of an infomercial. She’s confident that the stories and memories delivered by those talking heads are powerful enough to stand on their own—and for the most part, they are. With such a wide-ranging group of people, there are all sorts of stories; some made the American transition relatively smoothly, while others found abuse and exploitation at the hands of their supposed caretakers. But the stories are all tied together by a common shock at being uprooted and deposited in a foreign land at such a young age, and the growing realization that they were used as pawns in geopolitical gamesmanship.

While the film meditates on questions of physical and emotional and diplomatic isolation, it’s ultimately designed to be a narrative of reunion, one that closes divisions and makes connections between America and Cuba. These Peter Pans are men and women without a country, their homeland indeterminate, but years later they make a journey back to Cuba to find their roots and see what they left behind. Bravo does deploy some flair in this latter segment; there’s a scene where she weaves a contemporary performance of a Cuban national song by the singer Candi Sosa with a film of Sosa as a child at one of the Peter Pan holding camps, singing the same song. It’s a moment of quiet resonance that bridges past and present. But that’s an isolated moment in a final act that seems disjointed. There’s no real sense of journey or progression in the vignettes capturing the return to Cuba. They’re disconnected from space and time and only pasted together by the talking heads in between. Bravo works to bring intriguing and important facts to light, but the film seems content with merely a flat recitation of those facts.