A Cuban girl has to choose between her own destiny and what her mother wants for her in On The Starting Line (La Arrancada), a simple, fly-on-the-wall documentary that doubles up as a portrait of a changing country. It’s plainly told, with no stylistic gimmicks, gathering its power solely through the subject matter and quietly affecting story alone — proof that if the story is good enough, its presentation need no special adornment.
The film follows Jenni, an athlete in a country renowned for its sporting prowess. We are told by a teacher in the opening scene that being a sportsperson in Cuba is the closest thing the country has to Olympic gods. An early anecdote reveals that when a famous sportsperson got sick, none other than Fidel Castro came to visit her. It is under this crushing pressure that Jenni, an accomplished sprinter and shot put thrower, must pursue her career.
Her mother, who works as a professional fumigator, pushes Jenni to succeed as a professional sportswoman, berating her when she eats sweets or spends too long on the phone. When she’s not working out, Jenni spends her evenings in the Wifi Square, one of the few places with internet connection; blackouts and poor connectivity are a daily feature of their lives. And, as is common in Communist countries, posters of eternal leader Fidel Castro still adorn civil servant’s walls. Jenni’s life is contrasted with that of her mother, who fines citizens for not adhering to proper sanitary regulations, a subject previously explored in director Aldemar Matias’ short The Enemy.
These contrasts between modernity and tradition are all presented here without judgement, forcing the viewer to think clearly about how the country pushes its youngest people. These conflicts come to a head when Jenni’s injuries flare up once again, leading to a potentially painful decision. For her, the injury is something of a blessing in disguise, an excuse to finally do something else with her life other than participating in sporting events. She has dreams of moving away, watching jealously as her own brother leaves for South America.
Her final decision thus approximates something of a metaphor for the country, which, after Fidel’s replacement by his brother Raúl, has made certain strides towards modernization, including term limits for presidents (still within the one-party state system), relaxing its attitude towards the USA (although mostly reversed under Trump), and the recognition of private property. Are these small strides enough to entice its young people to stay? After all, they can see with their iPhones that there’s a much larger world out there. Without either criticising or commending Cuba, Aldemar Matias has cleverly captured a nation in flux, caught between Castro’s legacy and a potentially globalised future.
Spanning only 63 minutes, On The Starting Line never overstays its welcome. Beyond the questions it inspires about Cuba’s future, its images of athletes training successfully replicates the allure of sports propaganda. Yet, by only keeping what’s relevant to the story, it remains a concise and powerful story about trying to forge your own path in a society where everything already seems laid out for you.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.