by Richard Cloutier
In anticipation of the upcoming documentary Hero, Traitor, Madness: The Story of Guillermo Rigondeaux, it was with great pleasure that BoxingScene.com met Brin-Jonathan Butler, an independent filmmaker born in Vancouver, both author and director of this work, produced by Vadedo Productions.
Q: Why a documentary on Cuban Boxer “El Chacal” Guillermo Rigondeaux?
The boxer's role in Cuba has a more profound role than anywhere else on earth. By design, Fidel's boxers are not just defeating Americans in the ring, they are taking on the American system *itself*. This is achieved with even more dramatic results when these boxers refuse the lure of tens or even hundreds of millions to leave. In this way, boxers are a kind of canary in the coalmine for the health and values Cuban system itself. America's traditional response is that anyone who'd turn down the big money must be brainwashed. I was curious to find this out for myself. And also I wanted to find out why America and the American media held out no hope that anyone could have a principled stand in rejecting money. That seemed like a brainwashed kneejerk response in itself.
With Rigondeaux's story, we see a stark turning point. After Rigondeaux's attempt at defection in 2007, overnight, he had turned from a legendary Cuban hero to Fidel's Judas, a traitor to all of Cuba according to Castro. It was a nightly soap opera on Cuban television. Yet, fascinatingly, all Cubans had to weigh for themselves whether Cuba betrayed Rigondeaux or Rigondeaux betrayed them. If they agreed with Fidel they were free to discuss it, if they held opposing views they were forced to whisper.
Q: How was the collaboration of Guillermo and his entourage in this project?
Rigondeaux's participation, from the outset, is a deeply ambivalent one. He's desperate to tell his story yet he's not free to do so. I have spent a great deal of time with him and interviewed him extensively, however his hands are tied in terms of addressing specific elements of his story. After his successful escape from the island his family remained. In the aftermath, a wife and 2 kids are more or less held hostage by his actions. His mother died recently and he wasn't able to be at her side leading up to her death or the funeral. These are the costs related to his decision. The price tag on Rigo's life in America is deeply troubling. Directly, this is a story that can't be told because real lives are on the line.
But I've interviewed everyone surrounding Rigondeaux in the hopes of getting as many perspectives as possible. I've sought to interview anyone whose written anything that's interested me about Cuba to get their take. Seemingly every issue has as many versions as there are people I interview. I think this adds a dimension to the story that deepens the mystery rather than obscures it. The real complexity behind Cuba is not something the media has ever had much interest in illustrating or illuminating. In Cuba Rigondeaux is a forbidden topic, yet I've interviewed the succession of great champions going from the 1970s until not just the present day greats, but the champions of the future, to see how Rigondeaux's story resonates both politically and culturally. I see Rigondeaux as a very real Rosetta Stone into not just what Cuba represents right now but also what the American Dream looks like for those Cubans who risk everything to have a chance at it.
As far as access, I've been given total access to his camps and fights. I've literally entered the ring with him on 2 separate occasions, most recently his last fight in Ireland. I've gone back and forth between his life in America and sniffing around his life back in Havana. I understand less the further I go. Nothing could make it more compelling to me.
Q: How did your involvement in the documentary come about?
I've been traveling to Cuba since 2000. As an amateur boxer myself, I sought out Olympic coaching in Havana and returned on a regular basis. In 2007, shortly after his first failed attempt at defection, I met Rigondeaux at one of Cuba's most famous gyms, Rafael Trejo. He was the saddest Cuban face I'd ever seen. After he'd escaped and I first met him in Los Angeles, he looked even more sad. Those were the seeds of the documentary. It was my first inkling into the deeper story behind what Rigondeaux represented, really the question of whether it was better being a slave to Fidel or to capitalism. Why did he look so sad having gotten everything he sought to capture in America? What was the real cost to having the chance to cash in? So many questions arose. I was working on a book anyway about my time in Cuba and Freddie Roach was, at that time, Rigondeaux's coach. A filmed interview with him opened up the door to pretty much everyone in boxing. The most generous person I've ever met. 3 weeks later I was in Mike Tyson's home. I figured if I could get Tyson on about $9 worth of long distance phone charges I could interview anybody and it was basically the same work I was doing with my book. It went from there. Producers got on board. I never asked for permission anywhere, and rarely had to apologize. We just went for what we wanted. I have no credentials to be doing anything I'm doing, but it makes it all a little more fun.
Q: A few words about the importance boxing have had on your life.
Boxing saved my life. As a kid, I had a random violent experience of such humiliation that I was afraid to leave my house for about three years. I caught an interview with Mike Tyson on television that changed my life forever in sending me two places I'd never been before: a library and a boxing gym. Both of those places shaped me for the rest of my life and there isn't anywhere I feel more at home or happy. Everybody in the boxing community has been so generous with me and what I've tried to do.
Q: Tell us about your relationship with former heavyweight Mike Tyson.
Most of my heroes have ended up suicides and I never expected to have the chance to thank Mike Tyson in person for saving my life. I never expected he'd live long enough.
The first thing he had to say didn't look to promising: "So how did this white motherfucker get into my house?" But, somehow, 30 minutes later we were talking about our mothers and he cried discussing his and how the most important thing he ever fought for was really trying to make a dead woman proud of him since he'd never been able to when she was alive. It's a moment that will stay with me forever.
He also left me with something that I think is one of the most true and wise appraisals of my work and life: "You're too sensitive. You don't think you're justified in doing what you want to do with the pain that you already have. You think by taking on all these other people's pain it will help you to feel justified going after what you want. It doesn't help either of you."
As you might imagine, it's never been an easy thing having Mike Tyson as hero given his public image and if ever there was someone who personified the adage that its dangerous to *meet* your heroes it would have to be him. But he was just a gentleman during our time talking, tremendously open, insightful, gracious and kind.
Q: Cuba, boxing and literature are three key words to describe you, which is also the case of Ernest Hemingway. Is he one of your influences?
Unavoidable. Hemingway was the first writer Tyson pointed me to during that interview I watched. My first trip to Cuba I met with the real person behind The Old Man and the Sea, Gregorio Fuentes. Great experience. He must have been 100 or more at that time. Another angle on Cuba that fascinated me deeply was Hemingway's role living there for 20 years and his enormously prominent place in their society ever since. Fidel envied the adventures of Hemingway--I can't conceive of anybody getting a bigger compliment regardless of what you think of Fidel. The other fascinating thing is that this great writer of war in the 20th century didn't go near the war that was happening literally in his own backyard. I think that truly says something about the complexity of that society and the ideas and feelings behind Fidel. Hemingway was behind Fidel and dedicated the Nobel Prize to the Cuban people. Where he would have stood as time went on, I'm not sure.
Q: What impact did the production of this documentary about your personal life?
My personal and professional life are the same thing. I have no professional life. What am I qualified to do? Nothing. But I've been making a film that Leon Gast, an Oscar winner, thinks is special. That's enough to abandon insecurity as far as I'm concerned. I'm not greedy. So I just try not to remember I'm not supposed to be embarking on this or anything else and make the easiest answer Yes from everyone I want. I'm not the kind of person whose ever asked what's good at a restaurant. I know exactly what I want. It makes what I'm ordering seem to taste better, but really people like the way I order it.
I've racked up all the debt I could to follow this story and if you gave me 100 million today I'd work on this tomorrow. I think this gives what I'm doing a vitality you won't get anywhere without it. It's attracted a lot of good people to me that I'm grateful for and without whose help and support I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything. Obviously it doesn't help my marriage or nerves much, but I'm not someone with any interests, only obsessions.
When we were down to our last dimes of the production budget after Rigondeaux's opponent's supporters stole our camera thinking it was Rigondeaux's championship belt from our team's van, I bet for the first time in my life the last dollars we had on Rigondeaux winning in the first round. 20-1 odds. I asked Rigondeaux beforehand if I should--everybody thought I was crazy--he grinned and told me to bet my life savings. The moment after the referee called the fight over in the 1st round I jumped into the ring and he came over and held out his hand, "You owe me. Where's my cut? I did it for you."
Magical moment. Never forget it. So the film goes on. I just got back Havana last week after interviewing, for the first time, Rigondeaux's family. Beautiful and painful experience. She spoke so well of him as a human being despite unimaginable circumstances defining their marriage.
Q: What are your plans for professional life now?
Finishing my memoir about Cuba, "The Domino Diaries", along with licking "Hero Traitor Madness" in the editing room with the stuff I've just brought back from Cuba. It was messy this time over there. The police got a little too close to comfort with the work I was trying to do. Although, I managed to get Teofilo Stevenson on camera for nearly an hour and I think it's remarkable material for the world to see.
Q: Brin-Jonathan Butler, thank you very much!
My pleasure, Mr. Cloutier.