Film Review: Cuba and the Cameraman

A veteran documentarian’s 40 years of charting the changing fortunes of Cuba and its people yields an informative and personal portrait of Castro’s nation.
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On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, award-winning documentarian Jon Alpert and his crew ventured back to Cuba, a land the filmmaker had toured, shot and gotten to know well over the past four decades. In his affecting documentary portrait Cuba and the Cameraman, Alpert and crew are in Havana to record the mass procession of Cuban mourners filling the streets, chanting, “Yo soy Fidel!”

As Alpert dives in for interviews, pointing out that generations of these impassioned mourners have never known a Cuba without Fidel, the footage soon gives way to a jazzy, mildly self-congratulatory rundown of Alpert’s early social-justice film and videomaking in New York. The juxtaposition leads to the first impression of a committed filmmaker and traveler who might merely be taking advantage of a pregnant moment to repurpose decades of admittedly enlightening footage of Castro’s Cuba. But soon that first impression gives way to a closer look at life in the Communist island nation, and a profoundly deeper understanding of the people’s fealty to Fidel.

In effect, Alpert—who appears on-camera, narrates and interviews subjects from behind the camera—wins over the audience, as he must have at one time won over Castro himself, with charm, persistence and sensitivity to whatever it is his subjects are trying to say. That opening reel of the social-advocacy filmmaking he produced in the ’70s sets up how Alpert initially found common cause with Castro’s brand of socialism, which advocated for universal free health care, education and housing for everyone. Of course, there were many opposing viewpoints, as Alpert and editor David Meneses cleverly illustrate using newsreel of JFK and Fidel giving very different speeches about the future of Cuba.

“Hitching a ride on a sailboat,” Alpert and company head to Cuba in 1974 on a mission to investigate whether Castro’s system truly offers freedom from the economic tyranny of capitalism or Fidel is merely a dictator running a police state. On Alpert’s first tour of the nation, he and his crew land on a family farm outside Havana, introducing viewers to the Borrego brothers—Cristobal, Angél and Gregorio, in their 60s at the time—who work the land with their hands and their animals, and who light up the screen with their rugged gregariousness.

Throughout the film, Alpert demonstrates a knack for communicating on an intimate level with interviewees, making the camera party to the engaging interaction between him and his subjects, from the Borregos to Fidel Castro, whom Alpert meets and interviews over decades. It’s while filming Castro in the ’70s, along with other press, that the documentarian and his crew first catch the eye of the Commander, who’s amused by their use of a converted baby pram as a camera dolly and to tote equipment. Thus, Castro grants Alpert a brief, focused interview—in which the leader distinguishes between his respect for the American people and his contempt for the U.S. government—that marked the beginning of a genuine personal connection between Fidel and the journalist.

Alpert’s access to the man is stunning. He is the only American on Castro’s plane from Havana to New York City when the leader travels to the U.S. in 1979 to address the United Nations. Though Fidel remains mindful of projecting his strongman image, never seen without a lengthy cigar, always attired in uniform, Alpert still captures a uniquely candid view of a near-mythical figure being just a man. When Castro considers swigging some beer from the minibar on the morning of his UN address, Alpert hastens to point out that the Cuban head of state might not want to drink too much before speaking. Castro agrees. “True,” he says, setting aside the beer.

The film reveals Fidel’s sly sense of humor, when he suggests that Alpert sell some footage that was rejected by NBC to a different network. “You have competition here,” he jokes. And the camera captures the man’s ire, when he’s forced, like any international passenger landing in New York, to present a completed Customs form at the airport. Moreover, the film offers a glimpse at what’s to come for the nation, showing that upon Castro’s return from what he deemed a successful trip to the UN, the first person to greet him on the tarmac in Havana was his brother, Raul, who would one day become his successor.

In the decades between Fidel’s trip to New York and Raul’s rise to the presidency of Cuba, Alpert returns again and again—to film the 1980 Mariel Bay boatlift, the largest-ever mass exodus from Cuba to the U.S.; to capture in 1992 the devastating effects of the U.S.-led blockade and the fall of the Socialist bloc, which led to blackouts and shortages of gas, food and goods; in 2006, to film Fidel’s 80th-birthday military parade and celebration, which, alas, a sick Fidel doesn’t attend, sending Raul in his stead.

On a more personal note, Alpert always returns to the Borregos farm, and to check in with other friends, like Luis in Havana, who progresses from an earnest young working man, to political prisoner, to running a small business. Through compelling scenes of the people’s lives over time and stories of their experiences, Alpert uncovers, and imparts, an understanding of Cuba that belongs purely to him and to his crew, yet is so effectively shared that it’s possible to feel along with him as the film marks the decline of Castro’s health and, ultimately, the end of the insider status Alpert once enjoyed as the Commander’s favorite American journalist.

As the nation reels from its melancholy to moving on, Cuba and the Cameraman closes with a powerful visual statement that although the parties for Fidel might be over, the Party still marches on.

Click here for cast and crew information.