Like so many stories about Cuba, the sea and its inexorable pull north play a major role in a new PBS documentary that makes its debut Monday on the television series POV.
“Voices of the Sea,” which can be seen locally at 11 p.m. Monday on WPBT2, is the story of Orlando (Pita), his wife Mariela and their four children and the tug-of-war between a traditional way of life and family ties in Cajio Beach, a fishing village on Cuba’s south coast, and dreams of freedom and a better life on the other side of the Florida Straits.
He fishes as his father and grandfather before him did; she tends to the children but has dreams beyond the life of a fisherman for the kids. The people in this tiny village with red mud beaches rather than the sugary sand of Cuba’s touristy north shore work hard but don’t seem to make much money.
The aging fisherman, however, is rich in other ways.
One day he makes a list and comes up with 56 names of people who passed through his kitchen the day before. He makes good coffee, says his wife, but he is also very popular, a rock in his Cajio Beach community.
He rows out to sea each day at dawn and casts his line over and over. “I’m persistent,” he says. But some days the catch is skimpy.
The Cuban Revolution, which he said was painted as something “very beautiful” in the beginning, “means nothing to me now.” But still he says: “I never want to leave the village.”
The much younger Mariela says: “The only hope is to get on a raft and go to the United States.” Her plan: Arrive in the United States, get a job, learn English, send for the kids when she gets the money together.
But Pita is a pragmatist. “She thought she could do it all in a year. Realistically, it’s 10 to 12 years to take just one child,” he says.
Pita loves Mariela but he has told his wife that he won’t go with her. “I said go ahead; if it’s your dream, go ahead,” Pita says.
Their family is already divided. His cousins went to the United States in the 1970s; his father left, too; his grandmother passed away there.
The film is set during the time of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement under President Barack Obama, but before the United States eliminated its “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which allowed Cubans who made it to U.S. shores by any means to stay and returned those who were picked up at sea to Cuba. Cubans knew it could be eliminated at any time so they were moving up their departure plans.
Kim Hopkins, the British director of “Voices of the Sea,” co-founded the documentary department at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba in the late 1990s, but had returned to England to work on other projects. A chance reconnection with her interpreter in Cuba piqued her interest in a project centering around fishing and Cajio Beach, which she had visited during a student documentary scouting trip.
With Cuba once again in flux, she said, “this triggered us to get on the ground in Cuba as fast as we could, as we knew every documentary maker and their dog would soon converge on Havana.”
And that is how she entered the world of Pita and Mariela, which she described as a “simple, proud, pre-industrialized world that was bereft of technology but rich in family values.” Scenes of the blazing red dawn as Pita heads out to sea and Mariela making coffee and sweeping out her patio as a rooster crows in the background will pull at the hearts of those who have left.
But they, too, will understand the allure of another way of life in the United States.
“It’s incredible how many people are leaving,” says Mariela. She has tried once before but didn’t make it.
“There has to be something more,” she says.
“This is life,” her husband responds.
In one of the subplots of the film, a car comes in the middle of the night to take Mariela’s brother Roilan, who has made 21 unsuccessful attempts to reach the United States, to the north coast. He has told no one that he will once again try to leave.
Another group of rafters takes Pita into their confidence before they leave. They have taken a cellphone with them and record their jubilant departure with an American flag waving off the stern of their small wooden craft.
But 44 miles off the U.S. coast, the motor gives out. When they can’t get it going again, the men break it in pieces and throw them overboard to lighten their load and they begin rowing with wooden planks. People have begun to get sick; water and food supplies are getting low.
What happens next to this particular group is one of the more fascinating bits of the film. Suffice it to say they end up on the nightly news.
As a fisherman, Pita knows only too well the risk of the sea. And so does Mariela. Her first husband and 29 other Cubans who left just before Hurricane Ivan roared through the Florida Straits went missing and are presumed drowned.
The 90-minute film “engages us in an empathetic portrait of the challenges facing everyday Cubans, while complicating the narrative that everyone wants to leave,” said Chris White, the executive producer of POV. “We see in Mariela and Pita this dichotomy, and Kim gracefully teases out this tension between them.”
In the end, Pita and Mariela must weigh the pain of separation against Mariela’s dreams of a better future for their family. They reach their own deeply personal accommodation.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi