"Balseros" starts in Cuba and ends in the United States, but it miraculously avoids the political. On the contrary, the Spanish-made film, which was nominated for a 2003 best feature documentary Oscar (and lost to Errol Morris's "The Fog of War"), is a heart-rending account of people trying to dodge the hurdles that politics puts in front of them. By the end of this humanist epic, some are ennobled by their struggle. Most are exhausted.
In 1994, after the fall of the Soviet empire and the collapse of the Cuban economy, Fidel Castro opened the Caribbean island's shores, leading 50,000 people to set off for Florida on an armada of inner tubes and planking. The overwhelming majority of Cuban rafters, or "balseros," were poor, and both Castro and US xenophobes painted them as degenerate criminals ejected from their homeland. President Bill Clinton refused to let the balseros land in Florida, issuing orders for them to be detained at the American military base at Guantanamo Bay.
Co-directors Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domenech started filming in 1994, ultimately focusing on the long, strange odysseys of seven individuals. The filmmakers stayed with them through 16 months of detention at Guantanamo, followed them as they legally entered the United States and spiraled off to Miami, New York, San Antonio, and Louisville, Ky., in search of new lives, then checked back seven years later.
The effect is like watching a time-lapse study in disillusionment: 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. As he drives into New York for the first time, one of the immigrants is advised by an already-established friend, "You have to resolve your own problems here before you can help resolve other people's. And since you've got problems every day, there is no time for others." Welcome to America, greenhorn.
Most of the balseros get the concept -- that life in the United States is what you make it -- and their aims are modest. Guillermo Armas, tall, rangy, and intense, wants to join his wife and young daughter in Miami before the latter forgets him entirely. Miriam Hernandez wants to eventually bring her daughter over to a better life. Juan Carlos Subiza wants to work, while his wife, Misclaida Gonzalez, wants to dance. The gentle Rafael Cano only hopes for a car, a job, and a good woman; "My future in America is not to be a millionaire," he says.
The Cuba they leave behind is moldering in a time warp, but it's home, and "Balseros" watches with restraint as its subjects adjust to a country colder in many different ways. Church organizations and relatives help them find housing and jobs, but the sense of alienation is profound, and learning English -- which most dutifully do -- does little to dispel it.
It's in the final sections of "Balseros," filmed in 2001, that the full weight of what these people have gained and lost becomes clear. Marriages have broken up, new mates have been found, new children have been born. Some have prospered, others have fallen through the cracks.
The most wrenching development is when Misclaida's sister Mericys -- whom we saw turning tricks in 1994 Havana in an unsuccessful bid to raise money for a raft -- acquires a visa in a Cuban government lottery and arrives in Albuquerque, searching for her sister. The person she finds is a walking disaster area. Worse, mindful of her shaky status in this gray new world, Mericys must decide if she can bring herself to walk away. It's a dilemma out of Dickens or Balzac, and the true ache of "Balseros" is that the filmmakers know there are hundreds of thousands of stories out there like it.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.