Balseros

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Balseros

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The documentary Balseros (a.k.a. Cuban Rafters) began as a Spanish TV newsmagazine story covering 15 days in August 1994, when Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to sail off the island in homemade vessels. Havana beaches were crowded with rafts, but most of the defectors were routed back to Guantanamo Bay, where some were detained for more than a year. During that time, documentarians Carles Bosch and José María Doménech returned and followed the progress of seven Cubans who appeared in the first report, staying with them as they received exit visas and job offers courtesy of the U.S. Catholic Conference, which promptly scattered the expatriates across their new country. As the second part of the Balseros project ended, Bosch and Doménech quietly played up the disproportionate expectations of American dreamers who imagined Miami and settled for Nebraska. The first two installments of Balseros–which have been reedited and combined with the third for the theatrical release–are informative as a newsy human-interest story, but the final portion renders it worthy of a documentary feature. Bosch and Doménech reconnected with their core seven after the group had dispersed, and discovered that the first lesson most learned in America is that, as sculptor Oscar Del Valle's cousin explains when Del Valle arrives in the Bronx, "capitalism means you have to solve your own problems first." Subsistence living in the U.S. is luxury by contrast to poverty in Cuba, but the participants still find themselves putting work and material goods ahead of their abandoned families. Former prostitute Misclaida complains that she doesn't have the time to go dancing or swimming anymore, and her husband Juan Carlos shrugs, saying, "Freedom has a price." At its best, the film resembles Michael Apted's series of Up documentaries, which have been tracing the evolving hopes of the same subjects for more than 35 years. Balseros doesn't fully measure up to Apted's work because of the dingy quality of its video-to-film transfer, as well as flaws inherent to a project that started as one type of documentary and ended up as another–namely, that the filmmakers didn't ask enough of the right questions in the first two installments to make the third fully connect. But the courage of its protagonists makes Balseros gradually more powerful, and its punch is strengthened by Cuban singer-songwriter Lucrecia Pérez's score, which converts the subjects' stories into songs. An idle comment by factory worker Rafael Cano that all he wants is "a car, a house, and a good woman" becomes a musical refrain, and becomes more poignant when Cano arrives in Texas, gets hit by a car, and ends up sleeping alone in an apartment.

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