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Rafters

The short-lived history of the 40,000 balseros, or rafters --- poor, uneducated Cubans who set sail for Florida on makeshift boats in 1994-'95, while the Cubans still didn't care and before Cuba ruler Castro and U.S. President Clinton reached an agreement on keeping them ashore at home --- would be exciting material for any documentarian, but Barcelona-based director Carles Bosch creatively pushes the genre to its limits by following six of them from the inception of their illicit journey through their attempts at assimilation in the U.S. Available in English-language and subtitled Spanish editions, this music-laden, fast-moving study of human desperation should find legs on TV worldwide. Bosch originally shot the footage as a special extended (one-hour-plus) edition of the weekly Spanish TV series "30 Minutes." He films the people in Cuba pooling their meager resources and constructing their crafts with their encouraging neighbors urging them on. Two of the women talk about how they prostituted themselves to foreign businessmen in order to raise the funds to get moving.

All of the balseros fell short of their goal, either from hunger and thirst, faulty construction, or, most often, interception by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Americans took them to the Guantanamo base in Cuba, where they were held virtually as prisoners for eight months. The day Clinton and Castro reached their accords, Bosch gained access at Guantanamo to the same people he had interviewed on the same island a few months before, but under entirely different circumstances.

Bosch began shooting in August ’94, when the crisis began. In September ’95, several of the prisoners were allowed to go to the U.S., and by December, the rest followed. Some are taken in by relatives, some helped by local church groups, others left to their own devices. None of the new immigrants has more than a menial job, and even with more material goods, they are as much

second-class citizens in the U.S. as they were in Cuba.

Filmmaker succeeds in presenting their plight from humanist perspective rather than that of an agenda-driven social commentator. He does not, however, shy away from showing horrible conditions in Cuba, or pointing out that

America’s late-in-the-game embrace of the balseros was motivated less by a humanistic impulse than by the balseros’ usefulness as anti-Castro propaganda.

A highlight of the movie is the perky Latino music, written and performed by Cuban singer Lucrezia. The film’s structure — titles introduce characters at various stages of their “journeys” and depict shifts in time — is clever up to

a point, but occasionally becomes confusing. One controversial continuity device is the repetition in song of poignant words from the mouths of the struggling

refugees themselves, like “working, working day and night.” Tech credits are, considering the conditions of the multiple-shoot crew, satisfactory.

Rafters

Spanish

Production: A Televiso de Catalunya, S.A. (Spain) production. (International sales: Jane Balfour Films, London.) Produced by Montse Ayuso. Directed, written by Carles Bosch.

Crew: Camera (color), Josep M. Domenech; editor, Xavier Vilalta; music, Lucrezia; additional music, Vicenc Solsona; music recording and mixing, Llorenc Gomez; sound, Jose A. Vaz-romero; graphics, Pep Presas. Reviewed at Miami Film Festival, Feb. 10, 1997. Running time: 63 MIN.

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