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ELIAN Through the Looking Glass

Revelations await in the 'Frontline' documentary 'Saving Elian.' It may not be as balanced as it could be, but it forcefully puts forward the question: From whom did Elianreally need to be saved?


How swiftly Elian Gonzalez sank from U.S. awareness after returning to Cuba with his father seven months ago, frustrating all of those rabid anti-Castroites and opportunistic hangers-on sunning themselves in front of TV lights.

Elian was not quite 6 when plucked from the sea on Nov. 25, 1999, after the rickety boat he had shared with his mother, her boyfriend and other fleeing Cubans had capsized in a storm.

Throughout much of his seven months here, he was not just a walking ad for Toys R Us. He was also the TV media's pulse beat. Their crusade. Their embodiment of good versus Marxist evil. Their Kid of the Century between JonBenet Ramsey boomlets. Their starlit babe in the manger who had them journeying to Miami and planting themselves like palm trees outside the modest home of Elian's relatives in Little Havana until INS commandos whisked him off to the nation's capital early one morning.

Two months later, Elian was back in Cuba, becoming Fidel Castro's Kid of the Century and pretty much off limits to U.S media and their cameras aimed at him from 90 miles away. And so?

Out of frame, out of mind.

Which makes Tuesday's "Saving Elian" all the more welcome, this interesting "Frontline" documentary from Ofra Bikel coming when the great Elian watch has been downsized to a blurry footnote, providing a calmer environment for reflection.

And reflect Bikel does, although attacking coverage of this story only indirectly by dwelling on important elements that much of the media missed almost entirely while focusing on the obvious and the sensational.

When Elian was found floating in an inner tube after his mother and 11 others had drowned in the straits of Florida, Miami's devout Cuban Americans dubbed his survival a miracle, their embellished accounts of what happened assuming a life of their own. As a Miami priest tells Bikel: "They were telling me the stories about the dolphins that were protecting him from the sharks. . . ."

But not from sharks awaiting him in the U.S.

These included not only political forces mobilizing to keep the boy in the U.S., even though he had a seemingly loving father in Cuba who ached for his return, but also the predators of opinionated talk radio and TV who ferociously devoured everything Elian, regardless of its origin.

They included those on TV whose own tall tales were wallpapered repeatedly with pictures of Elian's Miami relatives and hundreds of other anti-Castro activists outside the family home in Little Havana. The impression was clear: Cuban Americans were united in wanting to keep Elian from his father in Cuba, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. On TV, at least, they appeared to speak with one irrational voice.

Yet a seminal moment in Bikel's film comes when she conducts a group interview of Cuban Americans in Miami who, quite amazingly, tell her they are surprised to be amid Cuban Americans who share their support of Elian being with his father, even in Cuba. It's as if they too had accepted as gospel what they had been spoon-fed by TV about their own community.

"I really wonder," says one woman, "how many people here in Miami feel deep in their hearts the same way that we feel, because I'll tell you from experience, at work, I have spoken with some people individually, and they have said to me, 'Eloisa, I do believe that little Elian should be with his father no matter where his father is. But we can't divide the community.' "

That view rarely surfaced in TV reports at the time. The 24-hour news networks, especially, were otherwise occupied, shoveling tidbits at viewers like coal into a furnace.

* Elian's Miami relatives accuse Juan Miguel of physically abusing Elian and the boy's mother, even though they offer no proof? Air it.

* The boy's loopy cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, makes a late-night video of a seemingly coached Elian giving his father what for? Air it.

* Housecleaner Donato Dalrymple, a shameless self-promoter and poseur, proclaims himself a "fisherman" and Elian's "savior" after helping his cousin pull him from the sea? Get him on TV; he's hot.

When Dalrymple attaches himself to the Little Havana household and turns up in a closet holding Elian when the federal agents raid? Make him out to be a hero, defending a helpless child from federal storm troopers. And when he later calls a press conference to scold the U.S. government for snatching Elian, put that on too. From his lips to your home.

"Saving Elian" identifies the moment early in this saga when, in the eyes of conservative Cuban Americans, "this lovely, angelic child" ceased being a wounded imp needing his father and instead became their pro-democracy dagger aimed at the heart of the dictator they despised.

Ironically, we hear, Castro himself was the catalyst when demanding the child be sent home, prompting Miami's Cuban exiles to immediately take the opposite side. Then we see him exploiting the situation by ordering up his own weekly marches and crowds of schoolchildren to act their roles for TV.

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