Film Reviews

Ninety Miles and Counting

"I went out to protest the traitors to the Revolution. Little did I know I was about to become one of them." Juan Carlos Zaldivar's words foreshadow the series of contradictions raised in his documentary 90 Miles. As a thirteen-year-old Cuban boy from the small town of Holguin, Zaldivar was an ardent loyalist to the Communist Party and an exemplary student given a fellowship by the government to study film and television. In 1980 his world was turned upside down when a bus slammed into the Peruvian Embassy and thousands of desperate Cuban citizens sought political asylum. As a result, Fidel Castro decided to "permit" Cubans to leave the island via the Mariel boatlift. Relatives from Miami offered to send a boat for Zaldivar and his family, but only under the condition that the entire family go, so his father left it up to him to decide. Despite his support for the Communist Party and his fear of American life, reputed by the Revolution to be rampant with crime and drugs, Zaldivar knew that leaving was best for his family as a whole, so he made the decision to go. Thus began a long, arduous journey of exile that not only separated him from his homeland, but irrevocably changed his relationship with his immediate family.

Airing as part of PBS's award-winning P.O.V. series, 90 Miles is Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Zaldivar's personal account of his decision to come to the United States, as well as an exploration of the far-reaching impact it had on him and his family. Filmed over a period of five years, 90 Miles incorporates archival footage, news clips, old home movies, and more recent video clips from the filmmaker's return to Holguin in 1998 and in 1999 as a guest of the Havana Film Festival.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary, narrated by the filmmaker himself, is the identity crisis that Zaldivar's father undergoes on both sides of the Florida Straits. Having been abandoned and deceived by Castro's Revolution, Zaldivar's father also feels defeated by the American Dream. Ironically, while Juan Carlos was the family's most ardent supporter of the Revolution, he also becomes the most assimilated to American culture, attaining a BFA and MFA in film studies at New York University's film school. His father, on the other hand, struggles to carve out his own identity from the harsh reality of immigrant life -- long working hours for little pay and the American cultural phenomenon of the empty nest, a particularly painful reality for the family-oriented man.

As Juan Carlos and his father negotiate their perceptions of the past and carve out their relationship in the present, we are reminded that choosing exile is not simply a finite act of traveling 90 miles to freedom. These 90 miles extend beyond the patch of water separating these two countries, creating a constant state of transition, loss, and assimilation.

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Mia Leonin