Most Americans probably remember the summer of 1994 and the stories of Cuba’s mass exodus of people trying to raft, sail or swim their way to Florida. “Balseros” follows seven of them on their perilous journey, then follows up five years later to see how they fared in the Land of the Free. The results are compelling, and heartbreakingly predictable: America, it turns out, isn’t always a land of promise for outsiders.
Directors Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech began filming the exodus without realizing where it would take them; like many documentarians, they turn out to have been in the right place at the right time. Our seven protagonists, with disparate backgrounds and varying chances for success — one is already whoring herself in Havana, so her fate in America seems foreordained — build rafts and embark on the trip. The U.S. Coast Guard intervenes and whisks them away to Guantanamo, to figure out what to do with them.
Eventually, President Clinton decided that those who had behaved themselves while at Guantanamo would be permitted to enter the United States officially. Five years later, Bosch and Doménech return to see what became of their subjects. Some have succeeded, others have not. One has succeeded, but as a drug dealer. Good jobs are scarce when you’re a foreigner, but especially when you’re a foreigner who doesn’t speak English very well.
The film, quite professionally and intelligently assembled, exemplifies the philosophy that everyone has an interesting story to tell, if you know how to find it. Here are a handful of fairly ordinary people who happen to be from a crippled island with a deteriorating economy, who earn our sympathy just by being themselves.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; Spanish with subtitles; )