Crises on the high seas

“Balseros” floats along the surface of U.S.-Cuba tensions.

Tom Horgen

With a plethora of acclaimed documentaries, film circles rightfully dubbed 2003 “the year of the doc.” And lucky for the Twin Cities, the University Film Society is making sure we don’t miss one of the year’s best: the now Oscar-nominated “Balseros.”

This Spanish documentary tells the story of seven Cuban immigrants who, among thousands, flee their homeland on rafts when Fidel Castro opened the gates for a short period in 1994. “Balseros,” which means “rafters,” is a fascinating look at this event.

While it seems effortless and extremely intimate, the filmmakers tell this multi-faceted story with impressive attention to detail and context. They follow their seven subjects from Havana’s ghettos to paddling the Florida Straits to being caught by the U.S. Coast Guard and detained at Guantanamo Bay, and then finally on to freedom and more hardship in the United States.

In the latter half of the film, which takes place in each of the various states the seven Cubans will call their homes, the omnipresence of the filmmakers’ camera becomes apparent. “Balseros” contains split-screen sequences where phone conversation between the United States and Cuba are shot simultaneously on both ends. The filmmakers also maintain considerable interaction with their subjects by videotaping messages from family members in both countries and then documenting the reaction each side has when receiving and playing the tapes.

It is also on arrival in the United States where we find the film’s most revealing sequence. Oscar, one of the film’s subjects, is given a stern speech about the meaning of the American Dream myth. It sets the mood for the rest of the film. In explaining the capitalist system, Oscar’s relative, after getting him at the airport, says, “You have to resolve your own problems before you can resolve others’ problems, and since you’ve got problems every day there’s no time left for others.” Oscar takes the capitalist ideology to heart and within months has broken all contact with his family in Cuba.

While capitalism gets a shot in the arm, the filmmakers make a curious decision, opting not to delve deeply into the larger political issues that frame the immigration policies between Cuba and the United States. We are given a barebones introduction into the state of Cuba circa 1994 at the film’s beginning and then some quick television footage of both Castro and then President Bill Clinton enacting their immigration policies. But other than those instances, and a sequence that juxtaposes a pro-Castro rally with rafters scrapping their boats together, the movie’s context comes directly from the mouths of the seven rafters.

It is difficult to tell if this decision limits the scope of the movie or, in fact, intensifies the connection we feel to the seven Cubans. The inspiring humanism expressed in their individual stories suggests that for this film’s purposes, it was probably the right decision.