“Guantánamo was not a refugee camp. These people were treated more like detainees than refugees,” explains Spanish filmmaker Carles Bosch, describing the ordeal of his subjects in Balseros, seven Cubans who attempted to reach Florida on makeshift rafts in 1994. A Sarajevo-based war documentarian for TV3 Catalonia’s 30 Minutos, Bosch was on break in the Dominican Republic when Castro responded to U.S. condonement of defector hijackings by granting Cubans permission to exit en masse. Bosch hastened to Cuba and began a relationship with individual rafters—including Oscar, a sculptor with Belafonte-like charisma; Rafael, shoved off his own raft by thugs; and jaunty bleach-blond spitfire Misclaida—that would extend as they were ensnared in a political power play that landed them in Guantánamo for 18 months.
“Journalists were not allowed to do interviews asking for specific individuals,” he recalls. “It is not easy to work if you are not on the North American side. They know perfectly when they have to allow you and when they don’t.” When finally granted access to the refugees, Bosch and co-director Josep M. Domènech Graell brought video from the rafters’ families. In Balseros, footage of them receiving these missives is intercut with scenes of their families later watching return videos shot of the rafters. “This was good for us as filmmakers, but it was also good for them and the relatives, because there was complete lack of information,” says Bosch. His TV cut follows those eligible for visas through their stateside receptions, some meeting family in a provisional resolution, others aided by religious charities in Miami that sluice them to Omaha, Louisville, Paterson, or the Bronx. Interviews at the time convey resolve, but monumental struggles glare on the horizon.
Bosch only decided to revisit the rafters five years later upon learning that Misclaida’s sister Méricys—who prostituted herself to build a raft but never made the stormy journey—had received a visa. He decided to expand his material into a larger immigrant story, using interviews rather than third-party narration. “This,” he says, “was the moment I decided to hire David Trueba,” the Spanish fiction writer credited as “co-screenwriter.” Bosch explains that Trueba affirmed the emerging narrative arc: “I say that what he did was just be there, smiling. Just showing me we were in the right direction. The interviews were the last thing, and he was the one I asked to do them. We wanted their story from the very beginning, and they were not going to tell me the same way they would tell him, because I was there. Of course, I was also behind him, telling him, ‘Ask again.’ ”
The details that emerge, from retold raft ordeals to the present-day litany of struggle—lovers’ separations, born-again Christianity, the inability to send for loved ones—provide a cross-section of immigrant life. And the pathos of Méricys seeking her drug-addled sister, in New Mexico, needs no narrative padding to compel. “People say, ‘You were always in the right place at the right moment,’ ” says Bosch. “No, with these people in this situation, leaving their country, every single moment was the right place, the right moment.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Balseros