Vilma Espín, the wife of Raúl Castro, commented that women are meant to be beautiful, not to get hit in the face. In Cuba this stuck as an axiom that one couldn’t go against, and words spoken decades ago are affecting the lives of women today. Boxing is seen as too dangerous and women as too beautiful. Despite the prevalent boxing culture in Cuba – the sport that won the country 73 medals at the Olympic games, women today are still barred from accessing the sport. But this doesn’t stop women from trying.
Director Maceo Frost first met Namibia, a 39 year old female boxer, through a mutual friend while travelling in Cuba. As he described Cuba, “just walking around, you see all these stories playing out everywhere and everything is overwhelmingly beautiful”. He started to film her the day they met, with no idea where the project would take them. Five years later, they have made a feature length film, Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight, which has just premiered at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. As Maceo said “We have a responsibility as filmmakers to highlight stories that have this weight and inspire people and shed light on the issues that you would never know about otherwise that you would only get to know through watching a film”. Namibia’s story is the perfect example of this. It’s an is-sue mostly unknown to those who aren’t directly affected, but it’s also emblematic of the unjust and antiquated notions that lead to gender discrimination, and are detrimental to the country as a whole. Words spoken decades ago have more weight in society than the acts of women today.
Words spoken decades ago have more weight than acts of women today
While filming the documentary Namibia was only one year away from reaching the age restriction to be able to compete in the Olympics, which she saw as “the ultimate prize, the ultimate climax for all the years of training and hardwork and perhaps it’s an even bigger prize as it is an intangible one”. With world-class ability she is given the impossible choice of not competing because of outdated, misogynistic rhetoric that values women only for their physical appearance or to represent a country that is not hers and for which she has no pride.
It’s been years since the documentary started and Namibia has been boxing for well over a decade. Over this time she doesn’t notice any progress in the attitude towards women’s boxing, and the words spoken decades ago still haunt attitudes of many in Cuba. Though she does hope that the Olympic committee will step in to break this deadlock, as internally in Cuba it is not going to break itself. Maceo also made note during his time spent in Cuba of the macho culture that pervades the air, that there is “some-thing invisible above that is keeping this block it’s like nobody really understands why… it feels unreachable.” Despite this institutional bias, he also comments on the outpouring of support that Namibia has received. “Just going through Namibia’s neighbourhood people are calling Namibia, ‘campeona’, cheering her on… people are re-ally supportive and just want to see her fight”.
Despite the lack of change, Namibia still remains motivated to fight, and wants to fight for Cuba. It was seeing the gathering momentum of the film that further motivated her to pursue this goal. Maceo noted that when starting the film, “We wanted to help Namibia, but Namibia helped us”. It seems that the help was mutual, as after making this film Namibia said that she feels more self-love than before and that she hopes a lot of women who see this take from this the message that what they want is really worth fighting for, “They don’t have to be Namibia. There is only one Namibia”. Indeed, there is only one Namibia and hopefully the generation of girls that she has inspired to take up boxing in Cuba will be able to compete and represent their country, the honour that Namibia was undeservedly denied, and her legacy will be able to open up more doors for many women in Cuba as well as inspire women globally to fight and resist institutional oppression and not allow these unjust decisions to impact their life’s passion. As Maceo commented “documentaries have the power to really put weight behind a story and make those stories transcend where they are”. Namibia’s story isn’t just a singular story but one that is representative, when across the world women are held back by superficial thinking that treats them as second-class citizens and whose talents are passed over. But, more importantly, of the women who are actively fighting this discrimination and using their incredible talents to try and effect change regardless of how fruit-less the struggle feels.
Namibia deserves to be recognised in Cuba’s proud boxing history
Namibia still plans to continue boxing. She is now ineligible to compete for the Olympics, but this hasn’t stopped her, just as the gender barrier did not stop her before. She is looking to continue boxing professionally wherever she can, with a manager in Philadelphia who is planning on working with her. Maceo is planning on taking some time off travelling before starting his next project, though ahead is the journey of distributing the film and opening it to audiences. There are plans to show it in Cuba by any means possible, as those who participated want to see Namibia’s story on the big screen.
It’s been a long journey for both Namibia and Maceo to get this film completed, Maceo described it as “a long journey with many ups and downs” to see it completed. Namibia commented that it was “really sensational, powerful to see it from one step back… all those years of effort, all that journey so neat-ly edited and compressed into the length of a documentary,” that it was as authentic as it could have been, and that you can see the love that she’s doing this for and she hopes that shines through. Maceo’s highlight of the film making process was being able to show the finished film to Namibia for the first time “we were sitting in my living room together and we were all holding hands, we were like ,crying. That was the most powerful experience ever and that was the most awesome moment”.
Having the pleasure of talking to both Maceo and Namibia, their passion and love for this project shines through. Namibia deserves to be recognised in Cuba’s proud boxing history as a phenomenal boxer but also as somebody who helped open the doors for women to compete and be a part of Cuba’s legacy. Hopefully Namibia and the female boxers of Cuba will soon gain their right to be able to fight for their country. It is not a question of proving their worth, their talent alone proves that they deserve to fight, but rather the other fight to overturn the misogynistic view that women should be valued for their beauty. Namibia hopes that in the future she can get back in the ring and become a champion and, hopefully, create a sequel.