A Look Inside CNN Films’ "Elián," with filmmaker and producer, Trevor Birney

Image credit: Courtesy Fine Point Films Ltd.

This week, CNN Films will premiere its latest original documentary, Elián on Thursday, Aug. 24 at 10 p.m. ET. The film tells the story of Elián González who became a national symbol of Cuba and the center of a custody fight that was known around the world. We had the opportunity to speak with Trevor Birney, the filmmaker and producer of Elián, for a look behind the making of the film.

For those who aren’t aware of Elián's story, tell us who Elián Gonzalez is.
Elián González is the child who was caught up in an international custody battle at the end of the last millennium, 1999 and the start of the new one, which began the journey that led to President Obama going to Cuba in that historic trip last year. He is probably one of the best-known Cubans of his generation and for Cuban-Americans living in Miami, FL, his name will always be synonymous with that dispute.

Does he still have that iconic role for Cubans?
He does. Not because he's on television or that he's a personality. He's very much out of the lime-light nor does he seek the lime-light. He feels like any other student who just came out of university whose life is really now just beginning. That's the beauty of the moment we were able to capture. He was just evolving in terms of turning 21 and finishing university and getting a job. He really feels “the Elián González story” is just beginning.

Where does your film take the story?
This is a film that is really about relationships. It's about the relationship between a father and a son. It's about the relationship between a broken family, one in Cuba, the other half in Miami. It's about the relationship between Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their elected representatives in Washington and, ultimately, the relationship between America and Cuba. I hope the film captures that at all levels, how a crisis arose out of a family dispute and suddenly become an international dispute. But at the center of it really, it’s about Elián and his father, Juan Miguel.

What was it like shooting in Cuba?
We began seriously looking at the film as far back as 2014. Alex Gibney – 2007 Oscar-winning documentarian and filmmaker, creator of the CNN’s Original Series, Death Row Stories, in addition to many other productions – gave us great encouragement that this is a story that should be told, so we began conversations with Cuba. They felt that, yes, there was a story to be told, and they were interested in working with us, but with one proviso. That proviso was critical-- Elián and Juan Miguel, had to agree.

We went to meet with Juan Miguel in Cuba and explained what we wanted to do. He’s very protective of Elián, and understandably so, given what they’ve experienced. Then Elián sauntered into the bar where we were talking with Juan Miguel and sat down beside us. Elián's English is much better than my Spanish, but we were able to communicate how much we wanted to tell his story. And he was able to say, yes, he would be delighted to take part. He felt it was important, and he would like to tell his story.

We flew into Havana, drove to Elián's home town of Cardenas and were able to shoot the breeze with him and his dad for a day. We did not have anyone telling us what we could or couldn't ask, absolutely no interference from the Cuban authorities. They opened the doors once Elián and Juan Miguel gave their support to the film.

Was CNN Films part of this project from the start?
Yeah. I remember getting this late-night phone call, Ireland is thousands of miles and eight hours away. Courtney Sexton, vice president for CNN Films, was calling mid-afternoon in L.A. and late-night for me, and she said, “listen-- if you can get down to Cuba, and you can get Elián's consent and Elián's agreement, we're on for this.” We knew exactly what we had to do.

What does the support of CNN Films do for you?
What it does is, it lends huge credibility to us as filmmakers, because it tells people that an organization with the credibility that CNN has throughout the world, sees this as an important moment in American history worthy of telling…CNN was right there from the start. Courtney was there, holding our hand and supported and pushed and challenged the whole way through. It was important to have that American sensibility in this story, because coming from Ireland, we're pretty neutral on the relationship between America and Cuba. But we understood that for many Americans, Cuba had a sense of threat. That's exactly what you want in any partner in order to make sure that you're getting the story right. You're telling it appropriately and you're positioning it for audiences to get the best out of it.

CNN has been absolutely wonderful. That is coming from the heart. They've been fantastic partners and really respectful. I don't want to seem to be over doing it, but it really has been the most wonderful experience, and I'm so happy that it's CNN Films that is doing this film.

 Watch a trailer for Elián: