Although largely forgotten now, the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 was a remarkable chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations. In a departure from 21 years of Castro’s iron rule, immigrants were briefly allowed to leave the island — and 130,000 did — over the span a few weeks. Impressive both for effectively documenting the scope of the exodus and for capturing its participants’ disparate tales, “Beyond the Sea” manages to be at once historically elucidating and personally compelling. Pic has potential on the fest and specialized circuits, but its career will most prominently play out on PBS, the History Channel, and docu-friendly cable/news outlets.
“I left,” one immigrant recalls, “because I was not allowed to leave.” And so it was for thousands of Cubans, some of whose stories are recounted here with an unadorned directness that stands in contrast to Brian De Palma’s fevered account of the events in “Scarface.” Director Lisandro Perez-Rey, whose Cuban-born father Lisandro Perez runs Miami’s Cuban Research Institute, makes fine use of his unprecedented access to a vast range of immigrants.
“Beyond the Sea” sheds light on the historical and political origins of the Boatlift, but its primary focus, wisely, is on the exiles themselves and their families. Interview subjects include a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, a transsexual entertainer, a prisoner incarcerated for life, and his long-suffering mother at home in Cuba. As wildly divergent as their lives became, all were linked by the events that led to the mass exodus from the port of Mariel.
When a simmering crucible of civilian unrest led to hard-to-conceal scenes of street violence and the seizure of public buildings, Castro agreed to let some of his people go. Moses could hardly have led a more varied crew: Along with hardened convicts, homosexuals and dissidents accused of “ideological deviance,” ordinary families applied for permission to leave. (Many prospective emigres had to claim to lead a deviant lifestyle just to be considered.)
Having made the arduous journey by sea, thousands of Cuban exiles arrived in Florida, suddenly transforming the coastline’s cultural landscape. Some were able to realize their American dreams; others came up against barriers that eventually led to cycles of conflict and violence.