Balseros is a triumph. I salute directors Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech for finding a holy grail of documentary storytelling: the plot unfolds so smoothly and with such narrative completeness that you have to pinch yourself to remember you’re not watching a fiction film (especially these days when so many fiction films look like docs).
Although two full hours of running time may sound too long for an observational doc, when the final credits rolled for Balseros, all I wanted to do was rewind the tape and watch it again. I feel lucky to have seen it first on the big cinema screen at IDFA: from the cool graphics of the opening title sequence to the slick cinematography, the epic scale, the sophisticated use of interview sync in voiceover and the luscious Cuban music soundtrack, the style is totally ‘feature’. It’s a sheer pleasure to watch.
The film traces the varied fortunes of seven Cuban ‘balseros’ who flee across the Florida Straits to the US in 1994’s exodus of homemade rafts, through their detention at the US base on Guantanamo Bay, and on again to immigration and the challenge of scratching along in Uncle Sam’s underbelly. It’s a multi-layered, dramatic story about risk, aspirations, hard choices, setbacks, and plot twists. Where the ‘feature feel’ trick really works is with the persistence and thoroughness of the filmmakers. When you’re making the usual quick turnaround TV doc, you yearn for the fiction screenwriter’s luxury of being able to cut to the other end of in international phone call, or what happened a year, two years, five years later. With simultaneous crews in Havana, Guantanamo and the US tracking divided Cuban families, and a shooting period stretched over seven years, this film cross-cuts elegantly between locations and across time.
An additional and intelligently-used payoff of this technique are the emotive sequences of contributors watching the rushes of each other – a mother in Havana in tears watching a video message from her son trapped in Guantanamo, a father in Arizona watching footage of the daughter he left behind in Havana. Thanks to first-class research and access, a gruelling shooting schedule, and superb editing, different angles on the seven families are deftly interwoven.
While delivering entertainment, suspense and raw human emotion, the film is also an honest depiction of a disputed period of recent social history and the scene of ideological combat between the world’s only superpower and its tiny, rebellious neighbour. Balseros resists the temptation to spoon-feed the audience, to comment or preach about Cuba’s emigrants, their reasons for leaving the country or the sort of welcome that awaits them in the US. Instead the film dissects in a beautifully understated, non-partisan and oblique way the contrast between life in Cuba’s embattled socialist experiment and the life of alienation for immigrants striving to make the American dream come true. Don’t miss it.