Four Decades of Footage Capture a Changing Cuba

November 21, 2017
Jon Alpert (center) during shooting of “Cuba and the Cameraman.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Cuba has always intrigued curious tourists — a heady mix of cigar smoke, percussive jazz, Spanish colonial architecture and artfully preserved vintage automobiles — but the native people’s attitudes have changed dramatically over the decades.

When filmmaker Jon Alpert first visited the island nation in 1972, he found a socialist country enthusiastic about the future and proud of its leader, Fidel Castro. On subsequent trips, he spoke to more Cubans who had lost faith in the revolution and were desperate for political freedom and economic opportunities.

“Cuba and the Cameraman” is Alpert’s homage to a country that he fell in love with and kept visiting to track its progress. The film will be launching on Netflix and opening at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Nov. 24.

Alpert (“Baghdad ER,” “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province”) is a multiple Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated documentarian and a lifelong New Yorker. Along with his wife, Keiko Tsuno, he co-founded New York’s Downtown Community Television center (DCTV), now the country’s largest nonprofit media center.

Alpert’s guerrilla filmmaking style on display in “Cuba and the Cameraman” generally involves buttonholing strangers on the streets of Cuba to talk to him and show him around their neighborhoods while he walks with a single shoulder-mounted camera.

As the film progresses you see his style evolve. He first brought his daughter, Tami, to Cuba when she was 2. By the time she’s a teenager, she’s the cinematographer. In one surreal and hilarious scene, she asks for — and receives — a note from Castro to bring to her teacher explaining her absence from school.

“We probably hatched the idea together that the only way to keep her out of trouble would be to get Fidel to write a note, and it worked,” Alpert said with a laugh.

Alpert has made an unlikely career out of showing up in places most film crews would deem too dangerous. Name a country that’s seen mass violence in recent decades and Alpert has probably been there: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, the Philippines and many others. He sold his footage to networks, which gave him the stability to keep traveling and documenting war zones.

His second visit to Cuba in 1974 lasted two months, and resulted in “Cuba: The People,” a well-received, one-hour documentary shown on PBS. By the late 1970s, Alpert was established as a reliable — and sometimes the only — Western reporter in the country.

“I was sort of the filmmaker-reporter of record. I could get my cameras into Cuba when other people couldn’t,” he said. “But this changed after the Mariel Bay boatlift.”

The Mariel Bay boatlift was a mass migration of refugees from the island in 1980, with the approval of the Cuban government. As many as 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida in crowded boats, including a number of prisoners and mental asylum inmates. “Fidel was making sure that he emptied out these institutions and sent these folks to the United States,” Alpert said.

Alpert interviewed the inmates as they were preparing to leave the country, and that footage, he says, is what ended the boatlift. “It was the lead story on NBC Nightly News. Fifteen minutes after the story was broadcast, [then-President] Jimmy Carter goes on the air and stops the boatlift, and his speech is almost word for word from the content of my report,” he said.

The sudden end to the boatlift presented a problem for the roughly 300,000 asylum-seeking Cubans who had not yet left. They already had abandoned their jobs and homes, and renounced socialism and Castro, and now they had to be reabsorbed into society.

“The needed a scapegoat and evidently I became the scapegoat. On a subsequent trip to Cuba, I couldn’t film anything and was more or less kept in my hotel room with permission being denied to go to the places that I would normally be able to go film,” Alpert said.

The limitations placed on the fillmmaker actually provided a structure for “Cuba and the Cameraman.” Because he couldn’t go to schools, hospitals and community centers, he decided to focus on the lives of three families that he had befriended.

Alpert, who was able to enter the country as a journalist, regularly returns to visit three brothers — Cristobal, Angel and Gregorio — who own a farm and struggle to till the soil after thieves steal their oxen. He meets a young girl named Caridad and then comes back to find that she’s a mother with two grown children. And he meets a former wrestling champion named Luis who shows Alpert around his tough, working-class neighborhood of Havana.

“I was sort of the filmmaker-reporter of record. I could get my cameras into Cuba when other people couldn’t.” — Jon Alpert

Alpert’s fascination with Cuba stems from Castro’s charismatic personality and his unlikely victory over U.S.-backed leader Fulgencio Batista in a 1959 military coup.

“The story of that revolution is very romantic. It’s like the Maccabees. There’s a little bunch of guys that hold off a force that should have steamrolled them,” he said. “They succeed and they took the country over. And the things he was trying to implement, if you look at the things my family left Europe for — freedom to go to school, have a nice place to live, health care … at least on paper they were trying to implement these things in Cuba. It made me extraordinarily curious and made me want to meet the person in charge of that.”

In 1976, Castro was intrigued by Alpert and the reel-to-reel Portapak camera he lugged around in a baby carriage, and granted him exclusive interviews that were remarkably intimate. They chat like old friends, and one forgets Castro was an equally reviled and beloved dictator. On subsequent visits, Castro would joyfully greet “The Journalist.” Alpert was the last Western journalist to interview Castro before he died in 2016 at age 90.

“His staff seemed to be horrified,” he said. “They’d never seen anyone ask Fidel these types of questions. I want to see what’s inside the refrigerator. It’s sort of an equal-opportunity invasion for everybody. And I think Fidel liked it and enjoyed being part of that examination.”

Alpert’s family encompasses the range of Jewish experiences (“I’ve got a rabbi on one side and communists on the other”) and he credits his Jewish upbringing for how he treats his interview subjects.

“That’s what our tradition teaches us,” he said. “We’re all equal under the eyes of whomever you think is looking down on us. That’s how I was taught to go through the world and that’s how I interact with everybody. I want to make sure that when I report back to my audience that I really certified that this is the case.”

“Cuba and the Cameraman” launches on Netflix and opens at the Laemmle Monica Film Center,1332 Second St., Santa Monica, on Nov. 24.

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