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'Balseros' a tale of Cuban survivors

The Spanish film follows seven who fled on flimsy rafts to seek a new life in the U.S.

September 28, 2003|Nancy Ramsey | Special to The Times

Carlos Bosch's job as a reporter with the Catalonian Public Television program "Trenta Minuts" requires that he cover the world's hot spots -- Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Mozambique. So each summer, Bosch -- who is 51, single, of wiry build, and seems to run on adrenaline and double espressos -- tries to spend August at a house he owns in the Dominican Republic, relaxing in his hammock, reading, playing tennis.

But in 1994, his holiday was cut short by news from Cuba, where a long summer of unrest had been brewing. Worsening economic conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were making life difficult for many Cubans. People were clamoring to leave for the United States, hijacking ferries, rioting in Havana.

Fidel Castro blamed the U.S., claiming its policy of offering asylum to Cubans arriving on its shores encouraged such hijackings, and he briefly opened the floodgates to permit an exodus of the discontented.

"I was completely shocked when I arrived in Havana," said Bosch, whose film "Balseros" ("Rafters") opens Friday at the Laemmle Fairfax and will be shown on HBO's Cinemax next year. "There were people in the middle of the streets building rafts openly, making decisions on whether to leave within days, hours, even minutes. If your neighbor was leaving that night, and he needed someone to go with him, you made a decision. And police were not arresting them."

"No one knows how many left that summer," Bosch said, speaking over coffee in New York in June, when his film was screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. "I think it was between 30,000 and 40,000."

"Balseros" follows seven people over a seven-year period as they leave Cuba and create new lives in the U.S. -- in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Texas. The film's opening scenes in Havana capture the energy of that summer, set to dance-in-the-streets Latin music. As if attending a festival, families and friends build rafts for sons, daughters and cousins, then hoist the rafts on their shoulders and parade toward the water. The beaches fill with people setting out to sea aboard wood rafts of dubious seaworthiness as mothers and grandmothers, still onshore, cross themselves.

Writing in the Nation, Stuart Klawans called "Balseros" one of those insanely ambitious documentaries" with "the scope and complexity of a novel." Yet it had begun not as a novel, but as a report from another hot spot, with Bosch and his cameraman, Josep Maria Domenech (co-director on "Balseros"), filing "two, three stories a day by satellite" from Havana. On Sept. 8, after Castro closed the borders, Bosch returned to his native Barcelona, Spain, and put together a piece for "Trenta Minuts."

Among his subjects was Rafael Cano, whose round baby face displays an infectious smile. His version of the American Dream is not to be a millionaire but to have "a house, a car, a good wife." Guillermo Armas, a tall, distinguished man with an impressive determination, names his raft "Nizeli Maria" in honor of the daughter he hopes to join in Miami. Mericys Gonzalez, a pretty young woman who has beenturning tricks to earn money for her raft, grins broadly as she sets out to sea.

The story of the exodus had run its course. The story of the rafters, however, had just begun.

"I think Carlos fell in love with the people he interviewed," said Bruni Burres, director of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

And so Bosch returned, again and again. After the rafters were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, he went to the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were being detained. There he met Juan Carlos Subiza, who planned to work hard in the U.S., while Misclaida, his common-law wife, saw the country as a place to dance "eight hours straight, 'til my feet say 'enough.' "

He showed relatives in Havana the videotapes, allowing mothers to learn their children were safe and, in turn, capturing their reactions on camera. Months later, when the rafters received permission to emigrate, he met them in Miami and filmed their dispersal to various parts of the country.

Five years later, Gonzalez, whose raft had been forced to turn back by bad weather in 1994, called Bosch to say she'd won the lottery to emigrate to the U.S. Did he want to film her? Indeed he did.

"She was happy to have someone to travel with, these two crazy Spaniards again," Bosch recalled. Once in the U.S. he filmed others and found that each had met the American Dream in his or her own way -- from being named employee of the month at a Miami Office Depot, to working two jobs and becoming actively integrated into a small Connecticut town, to becoming a born-again Christian, to living on the outskirts of Albuquerque dealing drugs.

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