Stories about Cuban refugees have been told in every medium over the last 40 years, from Scarface to countless news programs highlighting an endlessly cinematic nation and its people. USA Today reporter Jack Kelley was so fascinated by the Cuban rafters (or “balseros”) that he completely made up the story of one woman, which kinda helped get him fired. If Kelley had seen Balseros, an outstanding documentary by two Spanish journalists, he might have been persuaded to try a little bit harder: All the drama anyone needs already exists in real life.
The film was born in the events of August 1994, when Castro said he wouldn’t stop any boats leaving for the United States. About 50,000 people jumped on rafts and high-tailed it for Florida. Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech, who worked for a news show on Catalan public television, decided to follow the journeys of seven people who mostly didn’t know each other, but had a common goal.
Fifteen days after Castro waved the checkered flag, the Coast Guard ended the diaspora by intercepting all the boats that hadn’t already made it. Most of the refugees were sent to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay—but with the help of religious charities, many eventually were sent to the United States and given a start on their new lives, while others followed on legal visas.
Bosch and Domenech followed their subjects during the first two years after their departures, from the camps in Guantanamo to their first tentative steps in the States. Five years later, in 2001, they returned to catch up with their subjects and examine the various directions their lives had taken. The resulting film is every bit the pageant you’d expect, filled with despair, warmth, humor and fascinating little insights into American life that can’t be obvious to natives.
Their fates are wildly diverse. Guillermo Armas, once a brazen rabble-rouser, has a steady job at Office Depot and a daughter who speaks better English than Spanish. Misclaida Gonzalez, still waiting for her sister’s arrival in Albuquerque, has resorted to drug dealing. “If I were to see the sea again, I think I’d cry out of happiness,” she says.
If your eyes glaze at the thought of a movie about social science and immigrant woes, you needn’t worry. This is a drama with engaging characters, humor and even a slight reality-TV vibe. From start to finish, every story is told with poetic poignancy and a razor-sharp eye for important details.
In fact, the only flaw in Balseros is its eerie perfection. The camera was everywhere at exactly the right time—from the deserted room where one refugee wrote a farewell letter to his family, to the reunion of two long-separated sisters. A few scenes feel staged; others just seem serendipitous. The directors employed a screenwriter, David Trueba, to string the story elements together, and his influence is clear in the symmetry of every action. Balseros is many things—intelligent, mesmerizing, touching. But it’s also as neat as a pin when the most perfect documentaries are imperfect—sprawling, detail-infested stories of human lives or events, told with all the faults, embellishments and ellipses of the best storytelling.
Bosch and Domenech use no omniscient narrative voice-over or explanatory titles. They tell the story solely through the voices of their subjects, often employing their interviews as voiceovers on the action. The interviews are always spot-on, usually highlighting exactly the point the filmmakers are trying to make with just the exact amount of poetry or brevity.
It’s either supernaturally proficient filmmaking or excessive manipulation of a story that didn’t need it—but that doesn’t harm the overall beauty of the film. Balseros will be seen on television, but it’s worth viewing on the big screen simply for the scope of the directors’ images and ambition. It’s a big, beautiful film of imperfect human stories, even if it’s just a touch overprocessed.
BALSEROS, ***.5, Documentary, Not Rated