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09/18/2005: "Balseros"

This week I had a restless night filled with tossing and turning. I wondered of course why the night had been so disturbed. Had it been the news, something I ate, some worry, or some unfinished conversation?

I’d spent the day before finishing the editing of a Spanish version of a marine safety film set in a liferaft. That is, “Una Cuestion De Supervivencia: Paquetes de Supervivencia de Balsa Salvavidas,” otherwise know as the Spanish version of “A Matter of Survival: Liferaft Survival Kits.” When I edited the English version of the film, last summer, I’d dreamt in safety orange, struggling I assume to both desaturate and escape the glowing color chasing me like an out of control fire in my sleep.

In the evening I’d watched a documentary, in Spanish, with English subtitles called “Balseros.” I was perhaps not ready to sleep soundly, both from the effort of thinking and listening in two languages and from so much time in front of a screen. I was also uneasy from the images of other people’s struggles, of dreams that turn into a jagged reality, a kind of reverberating exhaustion.

“Balseros" (2003) follows a group of Cuban boat people who made it to the United Sates. In the summer of 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, nearly 50,000 Cubans set off for Florida in homemade rafts, inner tubes and planking. Many died at sea. Some who were fortunate enough to survive were detained for months at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. They sent videos and audiotapes to loved ones in Cuba from the base. With the help of various nonprofit agencies, many of them were able to find homes and jobs in the United States. Others turned to relatives already established in Miami, New York City, and elsewhere as they sought to a new life in the United States. The filmmakers followed their characters for seven years. “The effect is like watching a time-lapse study in disillusionment, “writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe. “At the end of the film, some of the balseros are better off, others are decidedly worse, but all look as though they have had their idealism eroded down to bedrock.” The film doesn’t point fingers or come off as overtly “political.” Balseros does what a good documentary like this can do. It connects you with the characters. It follows them in a way you care for them, witnessing and feeling their struggles and successes as immigrants who come to this country not speaking English, taking menial jobs and managing, perhaps, to keep their dreams alive. The viewer just might think possibly in the process or afterwards about the larger context of borders, embargos, wars, politics and policies.