As dull and pro forma as the talking-head format can be, it remains an enduring documentary style because it's cheap and easy; even the most impoverished directors can generally afford a subject and a backdrop. But it's also effective: Few things are so compelling as people recounting their own experiences plainly, clearly, and with conviction. First-time feature director Lisandro Pérez-Rey takes full advantage of this dynamic with Beyond The Sea, a filmed collection of oral histories about the Mariel Boatlift, but neglects to go any further, and while he puts a face on history, he never gives it a shape.
Pérez-Rey begins by introducing a handful of subjects in Cuba and America, then largely letting them speak for themselves. Their stories generally begin with discontent and the desire to leave Cuba for various reasonssome were persecuted under Fidel Castro, while others were sick of long supply lines and high prices, or spying neighbors and a culture of suspicion. When a bus driver crashed through the gates of Havana's Peruvian embassy in early 1980, tens of thousands flocked to the site and occupied the embassy compound, requesting asylum. Ultimately, Castro announced that those who wished to leave Cuba would be given permission, and an odd process of voluntary deportation began, with citizens claiming to be prostitutes or criminals in order to be branded "undesirables" whom the communist government would want to eject.
Over the course of five months, more than 125,000 Cubans made their way to Florida, packed into strangers' boats and bound for refugee camps and an uncertain reception. Pérez-Rey assembles his subjects' reportage into a single linear patchwork-quilt story, bolstering his grungy-looking, undynamic interviews with photographs, news footage, and even excerpts from Scarface and Before Night Falls. The result resembles one of Studs Terkel's books, with many voices chiming in from many perspectives on a single subject.
Unfortunately, most of those perspectives come from ground-level observers with little sense of what was going on beyond their own lives. As the film's subjects explain, their access to news of the world or even the rest of Cuba was restricted, and to them, the mass exodus from Cuba's Mariel Bay seems to have been spontaneous, unprecedented, and almost inexplicable. Beyond The Sea sticks to their scattershot viewpoint, ignoring historical context and world events, and dismissing the outside perspectives that would have made these stories more than random individual experiences. The stories Pérez-Rey's subjects tell are shocking, even moving. But they're also narrow, limited, and staid, and so is the film that contains them.