“Balseros” Depicts the 90 Poignant Miles Between Cuba and the U.S.
by Nick Poppy
Ninety miles isn’t so far, as the crow flies. A crow, in fact, could fly it. It’s approximately the distance from New York to Philadelphia, but more famously, the distance from Havana to Miami. The span that separates these two cities is perhaps the longest 90 miles on earth, representing a divide of ideologies, economies, and cultures that is poignantly underlined by the treacherous ocean currents that roil between them.
The efforts of several Cubans who attempt to cross this channel, from Havana to the U.S., are told with considerable depth and style in “Balseros,” a documentary by Spanish telejournalists Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech (playing at New York’s Film Forum through August 5). The film grew out of a story the two produced for the well-regarded Spanish news show, “Trenta Minutos” (Thirty Minutes) in 1994. For several weeks that year, tens of thousands of Cubans, desperate to escape their country’s moribund economy, took to the sea in homemade rafts fashioned from plywood, innertubes, and the like. Their goal was the States, with its First World economy, a shining chimera of opportunity. Many of these rafters, also known as balseros, drowned, and many were forced to turn back when their rafts proved not to be seaworthy. Some fortunates were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and transported to Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base at the eastern tip of Cuba. There they were held for over a year (in conditions somewhat better than those in which the Afghani Taliban prisoners currently reside) in a kind of limbo before some were granted immigration visas to the U.S.
Bosch and Domenech’s first TV piece on this exodus covered several rafters as they left Cuba, and described the circumstances of their departure. The film introduces its half dozen characters in their most desperate moments: Guillermo, Rafael, Oscar, sisters Mericys and Misclaida, and Misclaida’s common law husband Juan Carlos (another character, Miriam, is added later). Their country is itself a silent character, a crumbling, grimy paradise so evocative to American audiences because it is forbidden. These Cubans cobble together their rafts, leave their families, and throw themselves at the mercy of the elements, which are somehow preferable to the mercy of Castro’s government. The characters each have their own reasons for leaving: Guillermo wishes to reunite with his wife and daughter in Miami; Rafael wants “a car, a house, a good woman.” Oscar will send money back to his wife and daughter, Juan Carlos wants to work hard, “no vacations,” while his wife looks forward to dancing all day. Fate and temperament are closely aligned here. These fixed ideas about what they want, and what America will provide for them, determine much about how the characters will end up.
It wasn’t until after that first news story aired that director Bosch decided the flight of the balseros was worth following. Bosch recalls that “The good thing, and I was very lucky, is that I managed to keep all those tapes in boxes, rather than having my company recycle the tapes.”
Bosch and Domenech revisit their characters the following year, filming them as they sit in Guantanamo awaiting word on their immigration status. The filmmakers facilitated the sending of video letters from the detainees to their families, and though it wasn’t their original intention, later filmed the families as they watched these letters. Bosch recalls, “The very first day, when we saw the reaction, we thought, ‘Maybe we should film it, and we will see what happens.'” One character, Miriam, “hadn’t seen her daughter for two years,” Bosch says. “When we saw the reaction of that mother, seeing her daughter after two years, the way she was looking at the TV set, the reactions that she had, it was so fucking powerful that I thought, ‘Wow, I have to show it.'” The tactic effectively reveals the emotional cost the balseros pay in leaving their loved ones.
A visa lottery is held at Guantanamo, and the characters all eventually gain permission to go to the U.S. There they meet with immigration officers and social workers. At one Catholic charity, a woman gives out housing assignments to the new immigrants: “You are going to San Antonio, Texas. It’s a pretty city, with lots of jobs. … You are going to Paterson, New Jersey, where there are lots of jobs,” and so on. The viewer wonders if these people know what they’re in for. Bosch asserts, “I don’t think that people from Cuba, when they think about coming to the United States, are thinking about the American dream. The American dream doesn’t exist, and they know that the American dream doesn’t exist.” That doesn’t mean these new settlers don’t have dreams, however, nor that they won’t be rudely awakened from them.
Juan Carlos and Misclaida find themselves in frozen Hartford, Conn., and it is clear that the situation is taking a toll on their relationship. Oscar ends up in the Bronx, where a relative gives him a dismal pep talk, “You may not understand it now, but after you’re here a while, you’ll realize what the capitalist system is like. You have to resolve your own problems before you can resolve others’ problems.” So much for Oscar’s family back home. Things look sunnier for Rafael and Guillermo, who have family in Miami and better job prospects. But, as Juan Carlos astutely observes, “Freedom has a price.”
Five years pass. We are given a better accounting of freedom and its costs, as well as the toll of time, when Bosch and Domenech return to the States to check in on the former balseros. In the interest of not spoiling any surprises — and the film does offer a few — it should be noted that not all the characters seem especially settled, even after half a decade here. As one character puts it, “This country’s tough. Too tough, I’d say.” The film also visits their relatives back in Cuba. Their lives are different, too; they have changed, grown older, but more gradually, more predictably. And the gulf between family members living in these two very different worlds has grown ever greater.
Although it originated as a serious piece of telejournalism, “Balseros” manages to transcend that form in both its style and its narrative technique. Bosch observes, “I’ve learned that there are moments when you have to escape from being a pure journalist. For instance, there is one sequence where the two sisters meet after years. They’re having an argument through a glass. The camera was not allowed in that moment, one of the very few moments we weren’t allowed to record. It was a very important conversation, it was the last sequence of the film, and we were very disappointed, but we had to respect [the characters’ wishes]. And so we were allowed just to film through the glass, so you couldn’t listen to them. But you could see the faces and the reactions. When we saw it when we were back in Spain, we thought, ‘Wow, this is much more powerful, this is much better. This is what you would do in a fiction film.'”
“Balseros” shares with the best of its fictional counterparts a sweeping but fluid narrative arc and a fascinating cast of characters (as well as some beautiful vistas and a few crane shots; this isn’t shaky cinema verite). It should be said that this film is marvelously shot. Although it’s hard not to make Cuba look evocative, Bosch and Domenech also film the U.S. in ways that are subtly different from how a filmmaker native to this country might. Though it was first made for Spanish audiences, “Balseros” has lessons for Americans, not the first of which concerns how foreigners see us. Not to mention the winding paths that articulate how immigrants become Americans, and what they gain, and lose, in the process.