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The price of freedom

The stirring 'Balseros' follows, for seven years, the lives of a group of boat people who fled Cuba for the U.S.

October 03, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If you want to make a memorable documentary, you can't be in a hurry. The creators of the magnificent "Balseros" stayed involved with its subject, a group of Cuban boat people who made it to the United States, for a full seven years. If you put in that kind of time, you witness life happening in front of you in all its compelling, confounding drama. What could be better than that?

"Balseros" (the Spanish word for people fleeing a country by raft) started filming its protagonists in the summer of 1994, when they were building a variety of rinky-dink vessels in Havana, but that was barely the beginning.

Shooting in digital video eventually transferred to 35 millimeter, co-directors Carlos Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech followed their subjects first to a yearlong confinement at the Guantanamo detention center, then to their first months in the U.S. and finally to where they ended up five years after that. It's not only a riveting document about a perilous journey, it's also something no one anticipated in 1994.

The Barcelona-based Bosch and Domenech, top Spanish TV journalists rather than classic documentary filmmakers, were among the first to arrive in Havana in August of that year, during the brief window when Fidel Castro announced he would do nothing to stop any boat trying to leave Cuba.

Helped considerably by being Spanish speakers, Bosch and Domenech (who did the photography) captured intense images that take us deep into that moment in Cuba.

We see violent anti-Castro riots and answering "throw the traitors out" street demonstrations, and we watch the veritable frenzy of boat building and the Santeria blessings that often preceded their launch.

The two men also met and filmed, in the way journalists invariably do, a series of especially involving people whose stories were edited together to form a half-hour report for their newsmagazine in Spain. These include:

* Guillermo, looking like a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet after a lonely five years separated from his wife and daughter in Miami. "I'll risk my life," he screams, "in the Straits of Death."

* Rafael, a good-natured, open-faced young man whose idea of paradise is "a house, a car, a good woman."

* Juan Carlos and Misclaida, a common-law couple whose raft expenses are paid by Misclaida's work as a prostitute.

* Mericys, Misclaida's sister, whose luck changes from the worst to the best.

* Miriam, a young mother distraught at having to leave her 13-month-old daughter in Cuba with her own mother.

* Oscar, the spoiled only son in a family of sisters whose mother weeps, "When my Oscar left, he took my heart."

Once these people set out to sea only to end up interned in Guantanamo, the Spanish filmmakers do a second half-hour involving that involuntary stay and the refugees' subsequent first days in the States. It was during the Guantanamo period, when the Spaniards filmed the refugees for the benefit of their relatives back home and vice versa, that the strength of the rapport with their subjects really took hold.

In 2001, a twist in one of these people's lives gave Bosch and Domenech the idea of revisiting everyone five years later and turning all the footage into a feature. The result, however, is hardly thrown together. Domenech's photography has an unmistakable artistry to it, and the film uses bursts of music by Lucrecia, a Cuban singer living in Barcelona, as effective accents to the story. The places, both physical and psychological, where these people end up provide for true drama.

Despite its unique Cuban elements, "Balseros" gets much of its power from the way it turns out to be a classic story of immigrants coming to a golden land and finding the streets paved with baser materials.

All unknowingly, these people had implicitly agreed to a trade-off when they left Cuba: They would be giving up parts of a culture they valued to attain the good things America has to offer. "This country is tough, too tough," says one balsero, while another adds, "Freedom has a price." So does great documentary filmmaking, and this is one film that has both paid it and prospered brilliantly as a result.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter, including references to prostitution and drug use.

A Televisio de Catalunya & Bausan Films production in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films, released by Seventh Art Releasing. Directors Carlos Bosch & Josep M. Domenech. Producer Loris Omedes. Executive producers M. Jose Solera, Tom Roca. Screenplay Carlos Bosch & David Trueba. Cinematographer Josep M. Domenech. Editor Ernest Blasi. Music Lucrecia. Running time: 2 hours.

In limited release.

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