Posted on Wed, Aug. 15, 2007
FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP
Christina Khuly decided to make the film about the shooting
NEW YORK -- A decade after the Castro government shot down two airplanes belonging to the Cuban-exile group Brothers to the Rescue, the niece of one of the victims is bringing her uncle's story to the big screen in the documentary Shoot Down.
Cristina Khuly, a 37-year-old sculptor, watched for years as her mother led a civil suit against the Cuban government on behalf of Khuly's slain uncle and other victims' relatives.
Khuly decided to make the film to find out what really happened to her uncle, Vietnam veteran Armando Alejandre Jr., as his plane was shot out of the sky over the Florida Straits.
She said she hopes understanding that piece of history will help both the United States and Cuba in the future as they negotiate relations in a post-Fidel Castro era.
''I wanted to tell the story, essentially to have a record of what really occurred and have it be a window into our relationship with Cuba, and hopefully we can learn from mistakes that we've made,'' Khuly said.
During the 1990s, thousands of Cubans fled the communist island, often making the 90-mile trek to the southern tip of Florida in rickety homemade boats. The exodus reached its zenith in 1994, with more than 30,224 people rescued from the ocean in August and September, according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer James Judge in Miami.
It was during this time that a group of Cuban exiles and their supporters formed Brothers to the Rescue, to save those making the crossing from drowning. According to the documentary, the group saved more than 5,000 people.
Then on Feb. 24, 1996, the Cuban government authorized its pilots to shoot down three of the group's planes, claiming they had violated Cuban airspace.
Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto, who survived the attack, has said the planes violated Cuban airspace on occasion and even dropped anti-Castro leaflets in Havana. But he and the U.S. government maintain the planes were not in Cuban airspace when they were shot down.
Those killed in the attack were Alejandre, 45; Mario de la Pena, 24; and Carlos A. Costa, 29, all U.S. citizens. Pablo Morales, a Cuban who had not yet become a U.S. citizen, was also killed.
Khuly's mother Maggie eventually won the suit against the Cuban government, which did not contest the case, and the victims' families collected $38 million from frozen U.S. bank accounts belonging to Cuban telephone companies.
It was her story that became the heart of the documentary.
Basulto said he has yet to see Shoot Down but is skeptical as to how objective it will be. He has long accused the U.S. government of knowing the Cuban military planned to shoot down the planes but failed to warn the pilots -- a charge U.S. officials dismiss.
Basulto said he hopes the film does not gloss over his claims.
Shoot Down has played in several festivals and won best documentary at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival this year. The film will make its official debut in major U.S. cities this fall.