New Video // Unrated // $26.95 // July 26, 2005
Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted September 4, 2005
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In 10 Words or Less
Cubans take to the sea, not knowing what lies ahead

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: A good documentary, America
Dislikes: Cuba
Hates: Desolation

The Movie

This is the second documentary about Cuba I've reviewed this summer (Bye, Bye Havana being the first) and I'm no closer to an appreciation for their culture outside of the sandwiches, baseball and dancing. Perhaps it's because all I've seen of the country is suffering and desperation. Then again, are there any movies about Cuba that don't involve suffering and desperation?

Balseros, Spanish for rafters, follows several Cubans who cast off from their home country to try for a better life in America. The story is not about the trip across the water, but what happens after the trip is made. For some, the trip never ends, as they are picked up and rerouted to the now-infamous Guantanamo Bay, where they live the lives of refugees under U.S. military watch. Even this though is better than what they had, as they explain in videotapes shown to their relatives back home.

Because this is a documentary, and not a fairy tale, life post-raft isn't the American Dream these people thought it would be. Some end up split apart from their families with no idea when they will see each other again. Others fall victim to the excesses of American life. And others assimilate and live a life of quiet dignity, knowing they have improved their welfare, and that of their families tremendously. What an American might consider as settling means so much more to someone who had nothing.

The many varied stories told here are kept in decent order, though I will admit that I lost one or two characters over time, as the film edits the tales together into a flowing narrative. One of the best parts about the film is the amount of time that the creators shot their subjects, so storylines worked themselves out naturally, instead of on still-frame epilogues. Plus, there are some heroes worth rooting for, which always makes things better. When dealing with a foreign culture, the risk of alienating the viewer can be unavoidable, but these characters have a universal charm.

The filmmakers lucked out when they came upon a pair of sisters who made their way to America on separate trips. Their end results were quite different, and their familial bond created a wonderful parallel between the two subjects, easily creating a plot line that any documentarian would have killed for. Their lot in Cuba was one guessed it...suffering and desperation, and their trips to America were hardly made easily (especially for the second sister.) What they find is hardly what they expected.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Cubans' trips is where they end up. It's expected that they would settle in the Little Havana area of Miami, but where they end up isn't even close, as they are dispersed across America, including New Mexico, Nebraska and Connecticut. Putting them essentially on their own, they have to make some major changes or suffer in their new lives. The choices they make make the final part of the movie a solid pay-off following the first two thirds.

Balseros arrives in homes on one DVD, in a standard keepcase. The disc features an animated, full-frame main menu, with options to play the film, select scenes and view extras. The scene selection menu is a simple text list of chapters, while there are no language or subtitle options, and no closed captioning.

The Quality
The letterboxed widescreen video isn't too hot, with the exception of some beautiful crane shots that are used to establish location in certain scenes. These are crisp and gorgeous. The rest of the film has a soft, muddy feel that feels like old camcorder footage. There's almost like a light film over the rest of the movie, that combines with blurring during movement to make for a less than optimal look.

Though the music sounds great, the movie is delivering just a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack that keeps everything well defined. There's nothing to rave about, but nothing that stands out as a problem either.

The Extras
The bonus features on this DVD aren't worth riding a raft to Miami. The first extras are a pair of text biographies for the directors. That's followed by a 20-photo still gallery, which has some beautiful pictures of Cuba and the film's subjects. The extras wrap-up with a rather informative timeline of Cuban Migration. I didn't know half the information here, and it's likely many viewers will learn a thing about the rafters.

The Bottom Line
Though the film is about Cubans who risk everything to float to America, Baleros is pretty light on politics. That's a definite plus, as it is instead heavily-focused on human interest, watching what happens before and after the raft trip. Those stories are much more interesting than bureaucratic battles over immigration. As far as the disc goes, this DVD looks and sounds OK, but there's a severe drought in terms of bonuses for a disc from Docurama. Those with a connection to Cuba might find a need to own this DVD, but anyone else should be fine with a rental.

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