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Posted July 23, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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‘Balseros’ documents seven Cubans’ odyssey in the U.S.

By John Anderson | STAFF WRITER | Newsday

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Cubans set out to sea aboard homemade rafts with hopes of reaching the U.S. coast.

Seven ocean-going escapees from Castro’s Cuba are followed along the journey of a less-than-euphoric American Dream. Great stories, phenomenal technique. Directed by Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domenech. 2 hours (adult situations). At Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., Manhattan.

The sense of walking on eggshells imbues “Balseros,” a documentary that has you hoping its characters get what they want, and ultimately praying that they want what they get. Technically astounding, the emotional equivalent of a raft on high seas, “Balseros” ultimately feels perfectly true, precisely because it ended up the opposite of what it started out to be.

Focusing on seven desperate Cubans hoping to bob the 90 miles north to Florida, directors Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domenech began their film in 1994, a summer of severe shortages and a particularly brutal period for Fidel’s republic. Would-be Miamians were taking to the sea like lemmings anyway, so Castro said, OK, we won’t stop you: Build your rafts, go away. They built, they went.

But constructing even the makeshift vessels they came up with cost them dearly; the filmmakers talk to young women (major characters in the film, as it turns out) who turn to prostitution in order to buy inner tubes. All are desperate - some, as always, more than others: “They robbed me of five years of my daughter’s childhood,” says a rafter named Guillermo, who divorced his wife just so she could be allowed into the United States as a single mother, and has spent the ensuing years trying to be reunited with her.

Horrors occur at sea. Diplomatic horrors occur on shore: The Clinton administration cuts a deal with Cuba, agreeing to return rafters to Guantnamo Bay. An immigration lottery is set up. Some get out. Some don’t.

But what happens to the seven who do reach U.S. shores is not exactly the stuff of Broadway musicals and parade days. Without giving anything away, the shift in key between the first, exhilarating 1994 scenes of Cuba and raft- making and the results five years later - in such bucolic environs as Granby, Conn., Paterson, N.J., Albuquerque and San Antonio, where Catholic agencies have sent these people - is dizzying. This reversal of misfortune, so to speak - as well as the years-long filming and elegant editing - would be enough to make “Balseros” a classic of its kind. But the entire movie works as a political-spiritual organism, adapting itself to the mutation of dreams.

The two directors obviously worked in sync while in Havana and those U.S. cities where their characters landed; phone calls between the refugees and those they left behind, for instance, are shown beginning or ending simultaneously. Tapes sent to the island by relatives abroad become those relatives themselves, as the directors cut from the playing of the tape to the making of the tape. Or vice versa. It’s delirious. The comparison of “Balseros” with many political documentaries, even ones concerned with relatively recent events, would be like comparing the Sistine Chapel with red-crayon sketches on a shopping bag.

Critics are suckers for films that aspire so eagerly to do the unnecessary, but it is hardly superfluous when one character, asked what he wants from life, answers “a car, a house, a good woman” - and the voices of Lucrecia (which performs the film’s original music) take the line and make it a song. That the same celebratory song will evolve into a taunt only serves to emphasize the unity of the film, which melds its elements accordingly, wasn’t afraid to change its mind and is, in the end, a very disturbing take on the place we call home.

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