At the turn of the century the “wet foot dry foot” policy dominated the cultural imagination of a segment of the Cuban population. The policy, which tweaked the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, made it so that if a Cuban reached US territory, they would be allowed to remain in the country and apply for an expedited permanent residency. The caveat put forth in 1995 specified that Cubans had to reach dry land. Even if they were found in US waters (with “wet feet”) they’d be sent back. In Kim Hopkins’ documentary Voices of the Sea, audiences are given a firsthand look at the tenuous months leading up to and following Obama’s decision to abolish the policy. Rather than offer a broad history lesson or a poli-sci heavy discussion on Cuban-American diplomacy, Hopkins presents a snapshot of a family in the Cajio Beach community.

Thirty-something Mariela hopes to make life better for herself and her four kids. She dreams of taking a boat and making it to Florida. She plans on getting a job and earning enough money to bring her entire family over. Or perhaps to come back and build on what little they have in their small fishing enclave. Mariela’s partner, the charismatic fisherman Pita, is a few years older. He quotes Fidel (“A revolutionary can live on ideas only,” he says when confronted with the scarcity of food at the table) and can’t imagine ever leaving his homeland. Voices of the Sea follows them as they fish, cook, drink coffee, and socialize with their neighbors, at times forgetting the camera is even there.

Punctuating these differing views (and an eventual cancer scare that deepens the human drama on display), Hopkins’ sea-driven doc also includes footage from aboard a boat attempting to transport a couple of those neighbors to the Florida coast. In shaky, digital camera shots we see the toll it takes to brave the mere 90 miles-stretch that separates the island from the continental United States. It’s as striking a document on Cuban would-be refugees as can be captured on film, the kind of footage you don’t often see when reporting on these dangerous voyages.

Speaking at a post-screening Q&A at the Third Horizon Film Festival via Skype from the UK, Hopkins explained how she got such access to her subjects. Having been instrumental in setting up the documentary department in the Cuban film school in the late 90s, she first found Pita while taking out her students out to Cajio beach. Once she saw the dynamic at his home, she knew that was the family she had to capture on camera. Considering the critical comments Mariela and others make about Cuba, Hopkins has always worried about showing the film publicly. She feared retribution to those speaking out against the island’s government.

“That was always been my concern,” she shared. “But the film has been viewed by some people in Cuba who have taken a view on that. I wouldn’t let it out and I wouldn’t allow it to screen until was fairly certain there would be no backlash against the family.” She even hopes those in Cuba can take a look at the film in the near-futue. In her mind, the documentary is a cinema verité-like narrative, driven by stories and not by politics any one way.

Voices of the Sea aired earlier this year on PBS and screened as part of the Third Horizon Film Festival