Cuban refugees think they have nothing to lose — until they leave


Cuban refugees think they have nothing to lose — until they leave

“Voices of the Sea”
world premiere, True/False, March 1, 2018
airing on “POV” (PBS) during 2018-2019 season
Film’s project page at ITVS

In short: a must-see

One useful way to get a handle on the current immigration debate — more complex than the news media typically makes it out to be — is to compare one’s own personal immigration history with the stories of people looking longingly at our shores today.

Fortunately, when it comes to the history of Cubans in the Castro era, we now have a pair of outstanding films that both personalize and dissipate this often-overheated discussion.

First there was 2002’s “Balseros,” a documentary that readers of 52 History Films You Must See will recognize. And now we have “Voices of the Sea” — made with major support from ITVS and moral support from True/False festival founders Paul Sturtz and David Wilson — as the worthy successor to “Balseros.”

Together these films show us the very human cost of a troubled relationship between two countries, one that is both evolving over time and stuck in time, kinda like those 1959 roadsters the Cubans keep going.

Pita is a fisherman in a tiny seaside village that is dying because (a) it keeps getting destroyed by hurricanes and (b) its inhabitants keep getting in boats and fleeing to Florida. The town lacks drinking water and reliable electricity. Families must get their food staples on the black market because the state-run store is short on everything.

“Nobody can live here,” Pita’s best friend Michel declares one day. “Nobody!”

But Pita is the son and grandson of fishers, and he’s not going anywhere. “I never want to leave,” he declares.

Is he resigned? Overly cautious? You could make that case, based on the two hours spent in his world during “Voices of the Sea.” I’d argue, though, that Pita understands something that those around him don’t — that the cost of pursuing  freedom and opportunity on one’s own is the permanent and disorienting loss of community. And that may be too great a price to pay.

Those of us of European heritage should see the value of Pita’s insight. After all, our ancestors often agreed to emigrate to the U.S. only after receiving assurances that their neighbors would come with them.

Besides, Pita surely knows that without him, Cajio Beach would vanish. His kitchen is the heartbeat of the village, where Pita serves up an endless flow of coffee and gossip. (No doubt at the director’s request, he made a list of how many people were in his kitchen the day before — it had 57 names on it.)

A few years ago, Pita wooed and won Mariela, a much younger woman and mother of two young children with Pita, as well as two teenage boys. Mariela isn’t so sure about her future in Cajio Beach. “There must be something else,” she says in one of her moments of despair.

“Voices of the Sea” is essentially a battle between these two points-of-view and the toll it takes on their marriage in this tiny, impoverished, yet undeniably strong community in late-stage-Castro Cuba.

The immigration policy brought to life in “Voices of the Sea” is unlike any other. Known as “wet foot, dry foot,” it promises U.S. citizenship to any Cuban refugee able to make it to U.S. soil, but repatriation to Cuba if either country catches up to one of the rickety boats en route.

Mariela’s brother Roilan has attempted to flee Cuba 20 times. During the film, he and another couple close to Pita and Mariela will attempt boat escapes. You’ll learn what the penalty is for being caught, and it’s worse than jail time, actually.

Readers of Angela’s Ashes will note similarities between the back-and-forth immigration patterns of Frank McCourt’s family in that book and the families whose stories are told here.

And this film offers unique documentation of a water journey to the U.S. In the Q&A after the screening, director Kim Hopkins explained that, having gained everyone’s trust, she was alerted to the planned escape with enough time to give basic filming directions to someone in the party. The result is some truly suspenseful and candid boat footage.

In the end, as Hopkins told us, this is about “the old man and the sea.” Pita holds this community and this film together. At the end you might find yourself wishing that he, and what’s left of Cajio Beach, could just get shipped to the U.S.

But that’s our story, not his.

“Voices of the Sea” has enough suspense to justify its long (for TV) running time, and its moody soundtrack, which I assume is not temp music, is perfect. I plan to put into rotation at home, next to my well-worn “Balseros” CD.

Dig deeper

Here’s a useful summary of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy from 2015,  the time when this film was being shot.

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