Cuba and the Cameraman premieres on Netflix on Nov. 24
The journalist and documentarian Jon Alpert has reported from Cuba since 1972, charting the fortunes of the island nation over the course of decades, and gaining semi-regular access to Fidel Castro. His film Cuba and the Cameraman distills thousands of hours of footage into 113 lively, whirlwind minutes, covering big news events — the Mariel Bay boatlift; a Castro visit to the United Nations; the Communist leader’s death in 2016 — but also always taking the time to capture the everyday drift of life. Alpert checks in again and again with the same three families over 45 years of visits to the island, with sometimes heartbreaking results. In the ’70s, wizened farmer Cristobal seems happy drinking rum and arm wrestling on his land outside Havana, but in the hard-times ’90s, Cristobal and his heartbroken family report that thieves have stolen and slaughtered one ox, one cow, one horse and four calves. That left Cristobal with just one ox, when his fieldwork demands a pair of them.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, which had propped up Cuba’s economy since the revolution, the people faced shortages and blackouts. Alpert, always a forthright and insistent questioner behind his camera, tours a grocery and is told that each citizen gets exactly one bag of rice and one bag of flour per month. He asks the proprietor of a bar when she last had beer to serve, and she can’t answer. “When’s the last time there was meat?” he calls, and the response is a bitter cackle. Alpert is friendly enough that his subjects invite him into their homes, which always yields revelations. But many he speaks to are circumspect, resisting the urge to complain about their situation or leadership.
The tourism boom of the ’90s fills some of those shelves. As he interviews traveling businessmen who have paid $480 for a feast and show, Alpert lets us arrive at conclusions ourselves about what it all means. Occasionally, the authorities try to shut down the restless reporter, but even under restrictions he always finds something fascinating to show. A man in a mostly unfurnished hovel announces nine people live there; a family during the darkest days of the ’90s says they don’t leave home at night for fear of bands of machete-wielding thieves. He’s an eager guide and sometimes a bit of a goof. Once, up close with Castro, our dogged cameraman requests a note from el presidente excusing Alpert’s daughter’s absence from school. Castro complies.