When Americans think of Cuba, we tend to think of a place, and not a people. The same was true of East Germany, it’s still true of North Korea, and it will always be true of countries that are defined by their inaccessibility. Borders are blinding, and islands are isolated by more than just water. Only 105 miles separate Havana from Key West, but you can’t see anything on the horizon when you stand at the bottom tip of the United States and stare into the ocean.
Filmmaker Jon Alpert has spent his entire adult life trying to bring those two worlds closer together, and his simple but enthralling new documentary culls from almost 50 years’ worth of footage from his trips to the land of Fidel. Alpert has two Oscars to his name (both for Best Documentary Short), but most of his work in Cuba has been for archival purposes, and so “Cuba and the Cameraman,” while essentially a greatest hits collection for Alpert’s career, never feels recycled. It also never feels Frankensteined together.
On the contrary, the film’s lifeblood can be found in its connective tissue, as Alpert continually revisits the same memorable assortment of Cuban peasants and city folk. Offering a sense of perspective on par with Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series (and dwarfing “Boyhood”), his magnum opus invites viewers to evaluate Castro’s policies through the circumstances of his people, as opposed to the other way around. This humanistic approach can be quaint, and sometimes even troublingly sympathetic towards a dictator guilty of severe human rights violations, but the sheer breadth of Alpert’s sustained efforts provide a virtually unprecedented degree of ground-level insight into life in Cuba. Not even a trip down to Havana would necessarily offer the kind of context that can be seen through the lens of Alpert’s camera.
“Cuba and the Cameraman” begins just before dawn on the morning of November 26, 2016, as Havana wakes up to a world without Fidel Castro for the first time since 1961. The streets are empty, as though the entire city has been raptured. A few hours later, thousands upon thousands of citizens gather in the center of town in order to grieve together. “Yo soy Fidel,” one of them tells Alpert, devastated and proud. From there, the film jumps back to the early ’70s and launches into a chronological (and singularly personal) analysis of the relationship between Castro’s policies and Cuba’s people, each part of which has been inextricable from the other.
Alpert is a major character in his own story from the very beginning, a casually courageous fool who will follow his curiosity wherever it takes him. Affable to the extreme and dangerously absent of an agenda, he (and his seldom-seen wife) were among the first American video reporters to go down to Cuba, and almost certainly the friendliest. Alpert’s giddy voice mediates everything we see, and some of the footage in the first section of the film suggests that we’re in for an insufferable travelogue.
And then Alpert befriends Fidel Castro, a mutual curiosity bringing the two men together (the cigar-chomping revolutionary is so intrigued by Alpert’s decision to push around his recording equipment in a baby carriage that he goes out of his way to chat up the American). This unlikely acquaintanceship results in a rare and exclusive interview, and then leads to Alpert being the only American journalist aboard Castro’s plane when the dictator flies to New York for his October 1979 speech at the United Nations.
The candid footage that Alpert captured from this trip is truly incredible. Castro has never been so life-sized before, the myth reduced to a man as he tells jokes, shows Alpert his crummy sleeping quarters, and pulls open his shirt to reveal some taut flesh instead of a bulletproof vest. Castro, whose barrel-chested charisma (and simmering revolutionary fervor) can still be felt through the screen, even remembers to ask after Alpert’s infant daughter. It’s easy to appreciate how anyone in Alpert’s position would be awed by this attention, and why the first half of this film seems so high on the Cuban way of life. Back then, it seemed like Castro was implementing the same social reforms that they were fighting for in New York! At one point, Castro even writes Alpert’s daughter an excuse note for missing school. Her teacher must have been very impressed.
The Cuban people sure seemed happy and carefree, especially the three brothers who Alpert visited on every one of his trips. Poor farmers on the outskirts of town, these men — each of them with strong bodies and toothless grins — live off the land and want for nothing. Well, sure, running water and electricity might be nice, but you can’t have it all. Alas, every subsequent visit is a little more sobering than the last. The brothers are always there, but their lives begin to unravel. The oxen die. Neighbors steal their crops. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the drying flow of money from the Communist regime in East Germany begins to take its toll. Some of Alpert’s other characters are jailed; some flee to Florida. By 2000, former engineers are selling trinkets in the market and pissing in the street.
Alpert remains buoyant even when things go bad. He doesn’t look away from the hardships that are visited upon the Cuban people, but he’s so unfailingly nice — so afraid to offend anyone, or push them to an unpleasant place — that it starts to feel like we’re only seeing what his subjects went out of their way to volunteer to him. The whole thing is strangely apolitical for a film that’s very much about the profound impact of Cuban laws on Cuban lives. If only Alpert had been a bit less genial, if only he had dug a little deeper — if only he had either taken himself out of the equation, or gone the other way and been much more introspective about his complicated feelings about Castro — then “Cuba and the Cameraman” could have been more than just a window into a foreign world. But windows are important; without them, we’d never be able to see through our walls. And this is as clear and wide a window as you’re ever likely to find.
“Cuba and the Cameraman” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on November 24.