Unlike many films with a social conscience, "Balseros" never devolves into an academic lesson masquerading as a documentary.
Instead, "Balseros" focuses its attention on telling a series of individual, human stories, refreshingly leaving the history lessons for the classroom. Even when the film gets a little lengthy the two-hour running time is pushing it a bit you can forgive it. That's largely due to the fine job the film does of spotlighting a news story that's been almost forgotten in the decade that followed the mid-1990s exodus of Cubans to the United States.
The film's title refers to seven "balseros," or amateur rafters, who made the perilous ocean trek for various personal reasons, including Guillermo Armas, whose wife and daughter are already waiting for him in Miami; Rafael Cano, whose family views his efforts as a betrayal of sorts; and Juan Carlos Subiza and Misclaida Gonzalez, a young couple.
Filmmakers Carlos Bosch and Jose Maria Domenech chronicle their subjects' efforts to first construct sea-worthy crafts and then to launch them in the water. (In some cases, the latter is harder.)
And even when the balseros do wind up sailing in the right direction, and with favorable conditions, most of them are picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and detained at the Guantanamo Bay Army base, where they're held until officials can figure out whether they will be allowed into the United States.
Bosch and Domenech then catch up with their subjects five years later to see what has become of them. And not all of the stories have happy endings.
Of the immigrants, Armas is perhaps the most sympathetic, and his plight is one of the more heartbreaking: He originally agreed to divorce his wife which allowed her to leave Cuba and then he spent the next several years trying to reunite with her and their daughter. The entire film could have been about him, but most of the other stories do hold interest.
"Balseros" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scattered use of strong profanity, a brief scene of violence (a scuffle), and a quick close-up of some nude photos. Running time: 120 minutes.