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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

Voices of the Sea documentary review: when home cannot nurture a family

Voices of the Sea green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A poignant, sensitive portrait of desperation, love, and survival in a beautiful place, one that is intimately Cuban, but with much wider relevance, too, in the midst of the global refugee crisis.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by women; I’m a proud social justice warrior
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Mariela lives in Cajio Beach, a seaside village in Cuba, and dreams of escaping to America to make a better life for her children, for whom she’d love bigger horizons than working as fishermen. It’s a living that may not even be viable anymore, if the meager catches her husband, Pita, typically brings home are any indication… but it’s just about the only work around. All of Cuba may be poor, but Mariela and her family and friends are far from the hustle of Havana, even, and the desolation and the desperation of their existence are palpable. And yet so is the joy and the camaraderie of their little town, as seen through the sensitive eye of British documentarian Kim Hopkins, who brings a poignant poeticism to her portrait of hard going in a beautiful place, and of the love, laughter, and community that, perhaps, make the struggle just that little bit more tolerable.

Voices of the Sea classic car

Cuba’s classic-car culture is a result of deprived necessity, not a choice to be hip and retro.

Hopkins knows Cuba, its people, and the restrictions on its filmmakers: she cofounded the documentary department at an international film school there in the 1990s. And she knows how to get around those restrictions. None of the happy, hip clichés of Cuba that the government would like to push are on display here. They are undercut, in fact, in one smart sequence that deromanticizes the fix-it, recycle-it, make-do ethos that, for instance, underlies Cuba’s iconic classic cars; they aren’t cool retro, they are sheer necessity, partly thanks to the US trade embargo the country has been subjected to for decades. Regular power cuts, bread as a black-market item, and schools kids can’t get to because the bus just didn’t show up: this is the reality of life in Cuba, a tantalizing 90 miles from the richest country on Earth.

Those 90 miles are an enormous danger to cross, however: another of the documentary’s extraordinary sequences follows Mariela’s neighbor, Pita’s best friend, as he films an attempt to cross the Straits of Florida to the Keys in a rickety boat with a jury-rigged motor. It’s harrowing. (We also learn along the way that Mariela’s first husband — Pita is her second — disappeared, presumed drowned, after the boat he was hoping to get to Florida on capsized.) And so as specifically Cuban as Voices of the Sea is, so intimate and so singular, Hopkins’s depiction of the calculations migrants make is hugely relevant for the entire world right now, if we’re to have any hope of stemming the refugee crisis we’re in the midst of.

Voices of the Sea Marial

Mariela would like to go to America, where her children would have more opportunities for a better life…

For, as we see here, no one really wants to leave their home and everything they know, risking their freedom and possibly their life, to end up in a place where they no know one, don’t speak the language, and aren’t prepared for life and work there. (One running motif of Voices is that no one in Mariela’s town truly understands what living in America would be like for them; they have fantasies that recall the “roads paved with gold” dreams of immigrants to 19th-century America.) They just want the opportunities other people are afforded merely by the accidents of their births. They’d rather have that at home, but it they can’t, they will pursue it however they can. It should already be blatantly obvious, but we’re going to need to figure out how to spread the wealth so that everyone can share in it. There simply is no other solution: not walls, that’s for sure. This gentle yet incisive film is, under its quiet beauty, a sharp call for more expansive ideas of empathy and fairness, ones that work on a global level, and for everyone. Because any of us could be Mariela, and we need to start recognizing that.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.


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green light 4.5 stars

Voices of the Sea (2019) | directed by Kim Hopkins
UK/Ire release: Jan 11 2019

BBFC: not rated

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer

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