Jon Alpert Talks 'Cuba and the Cameraman': "In terms of romantic heroism, Fidel and his story are pretty astonishing!"

11/20/2017 08:12 am ET
The Borrego brothers and Jon Alpert in the 1990s
Photo courtesy Nagamitsu Endo/Netflix
The Borrego brothers and Jon Alpert in the 1990s

What do you do when you feel disillusioned with the American Dream? You look to Cuba, of course!

Well, got you interested right?! Stay with me, it gets better. But first, a tiny bit of history.

Just a year before his death, in 1944 U.S. President Franklyn D. Roosevelt addressed the American people and proposed the idea of a Second Bill of Rights, because he admitted that the first document, while politically well-thought out, had "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness." He wanted a more economy-driven bill of rights, which would guarantee for all Americans employment, affordable housing, a good education, medical care at reasonable cost and more. When he passed away in 1945, key members of his administrations were sent to Europe and Japan to come up with fair constitutions for the losing countries out of the Second World War, and thus FDR’s wish became a long distant dream for the American people — while Germany, Japan and Italy all were organized to benefit from his ideals.

Fast forward seventy years plus and we’re still floundering in the midst of a capitalistic system which offers lots to the rich and little to the poor and middle classes. Welcome to the real American dream!

In the early 1970s, then investigative journalist Jon Alpert felt the struggles of the U.S. system while living in NYC and looked with curiosity to Cuba, to see just what the opposite of us, the U.S. could do. What Castro’s regime, despite his lofty ideals and foreign imposed embargoes had been able to achieve through a Communist structure.

‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ is Alpert’s wonderful and insightful documentary, the result of that voyage down the rabbit hole that Castro’s Cuba appeared to be to Americans, up until his death in 2016. A faraway land just next door, where unicorns like free healthcare and affordable first-class education were possible and people were guaranteed a roof over their heads.

But the greatness of Alpert’s film lies not only in his masterful capturing of Cuba and its people, but also his tenacity in staying with the story and following Castro for decades — 45 years to be exact. Never before seen footage of the man behind the public figure blend easily with conversations Alpert captured with local farmers and their families. It’s all there, what Cuba was, what is could have been, what it has become. Which makes ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ magical viewing, a must-watch documentary.

I caught up with the kind, funny and super cool Jon Alpert in Venice, where his film world premiered, and I’ve included highlights of our conversation below.

‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ begins streaming on Netflix on November 24th.

Why did you start filming in 1972, what happened then?

Jon Alpert: We were young, we were living in America in the Sixties and the Seventies, we had terrible healthcare, we had terrible housing…

We still do!

Alpert: We still do. And gosh, something was happening over the horizon, they were doing things that we were only dreaming about in America. There was so much fire associated with the Cuban exiles saying it was terrible, and people who were going down there saying it was paradise on earth, we were curious and so we went. We had to see for ourselves.

Filmmaker Jon Alpert
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Filmmaker Jon Alpert

And what did you see on that first visit?

Alpert: Nothing! They boat arrested us. In the film you see the actual sailboat we went down there with. I was playing soccer, I was on the soccer team and the captain of the team said “don’t you have a camera? Wanna go to Cuba?” And I said “sure!” They had a friend who was a Quaker who believed in world citizenship and had made his own passport in Esperanto, with a rainbow flag and was bringing a boatload of musical instruments and children’s toys to the kids in Cuba, in defiance of the blockade. And we went along for the ride. We had been told by our Cuban contacts that we would be welcomed but in fact they didn’t want to let us off the boat. Apparently they had told this guy, who had done this before, to never come back again. He didn’t tell us that.

I spent three days basically driving the Cubans crazy. “If Cuba is so great and the Revolution is so wonderful...” — we know how to do this, as reporters. You push them, then you back off. Then you push them some more. I went fishing in this industrial pond, which they found quite amusing and got them interested about me. Finally just to shut me up, these two giant Cadillacs come and they pile us in there and give us the three-hour tour: Hemingway’s house, the housing project Alamar, which was their poster child for new housing... They fed us, because we hadn’t eaten in three days….

Except for your wonderful fishing expedition!

Alpert: Yeah, there was an oil slick on that water this thick! When something is forbidden to us reporter, it gets us more excited. If I told you this is off limit in this interview, you’d want to ask those questions more than anything else. So I started driving the Cubans crazy, “I want to come back!” I’d say. I wasn’t breaking through and tried to figure out what do I have in common with the Cubans, and the only thing was that we all liked baseball. So I got all my buddies together and we challenged the Cuban diplomats in New York, we played them every Sunday in Central Park and they kicked our ass every single Sunday for two years. It was humiliating but sometimes it’s better to lose. Because they ended up liking me, and finally let us in.

Were you ever doubtful of what you were portraying?

Alpert: I think what we captured during that dark era of the Nineties is something that no one has been able to record. And I’m not sure we put any lipstick on what was happening to the people. I have no idea how that’s going to be received in Cuba because nobody has really captured that darkness like we did.

I was really entranced by the idealism and the story of how the Revolution started on boats that were not much bigger than these boats that are driving us around Venice — a bunch of guys like us on that boat taking the country back, that was really exciting! But we were watching to see whether they delivered and it’s part of the reason why we stayed with the story for so long, because we need to be able to watch it over time so it gets beyond just the words. You can see exactly what happened.

But also I think it’s a cautionary tale of how the outside world stops even someone like Fidel Castro from doing what his intentions were. A lot of the things that weren’t accomplished, weren’t achieved because of the blockade.

Alpert: I was thinking about this the other day, why didn’t we just say, “you know what? Lets use this as a laboratory,” and instead of stomping on them, lets see if this works. Maybe there is something there that could be applicable in our country. Instead at every turn, we did whatever we could to disrupt what was going on down there. So we never really got to see whether or not it would work. And when someone is punching you all the time, it changes your personality. It changes your ability to be warm and fuzzy, you’ve got to toughen up otherwise you’re not going to be around anymore. That’s one of the biggest tragedies, [missing out on] that laboratory that might have been able to show us if these ideals [work] — when it becomes you against everybody else, you’re fighting for your own survival, it’s the cancer that metastasizes.

You also manage to bring you a very human aspect to Fidel. A funny side, which we know about as a myth, but never really witnessed. There are all these anecdotes in your film that bring out the human in him.

Alpert: There is so much more too! He’s a curious person and he likes engaging with people. He’s very different from [his brother] Raúl, who’s reserved. Fidel wants to talk to you!

What is your view of Fidel’s actions? I mean in the film we see that you grew more and more disillusioned with his enterprise. Where do you stand today?

Alpert: I think in certain areas there are lasting benefits that the Revolution delivered and continues to deliver. The educational system in Cuba is pretty good. If you compare it with the inner cities in the United States it’s better there. The healthcare system has nothing to work with and delivers better quality healthcare than the most expensive healthcare we have in the U.S.. Those things are fantastic. The “creature comforts”, what you want, like water when you turn on the sink, electricity so your fridge stays cold — they’ve been stuck in the same place for fifty years. And the first group of excited revolutionaries, who cares. It’s the beginning of something exciting, like the first time you meet your girlfriend. But thirty years later you’re waking up looking at someone next to you on the pillow that doesn’t look like a teenager anymore, that’s one of the reasons why we stayed with the film so long. It’s important to be able to witness what life in Cuba has been like all this period.

Your perspective is refreshing because after Fidel’s death, all the views were quite polarized. He was either a hero, or a dictator and a monster. Why do you think that is, that we can’t come to terms with the complexities of the situation in Cuba?

Alpert: I think we should! I’m hoping that you think this film has some nuances to it, and that if you stay with it for the almost two hours, you begin to see the good and bad in everything. When we went back to Cuba the first time, to actually really film in 1974, I negotiated two hundred things that we wanted to film. And was carrying this list around like a bible. They put this guy, Freddie Torres in charge of us, and we had been allocated a minivan and driver at a time when no one had this type of transportation. Freddie took our bus and disappeared, and used it to visit all his girlfriends, while we were under order not to leave where they had put us up. I’m up at five o’clock every morning thinking, today we’re going to the chicken farm and then we’re going… But we never got anywhere because Freddie had a lot of girlfriends, and only one bus.

Finally, I said, “listen, I’m not waiting around here.” I’m taking the camera and going down the road. And that’s when we met Cristobal, we weren’t supposed to meet him! We were forbidden from going out unsupervised. And when I came back, Freddie was waiting, out of his mind with anger. Screaming, and I said, “listen if the bus is not here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock like it’s supposed to be, I’m walking down the road again.” If you want to thrown me out of the country, then you can explain to whoever is sitting upstairs why I’m back in NYC. If you don’t follow the rules, I’m not going to follow them either.

It was useful because up to then, I thought everyone was working for the collective good — and here was this most selfish guy I’d ever met. It was a very very useful cold shower.

It put it in perspective that nothing is black and white. Nothing is all good, and nothing is all bad, but there is a lot of really good stuff that the Cubans were trying to do. And in terms of romantic heroism, Fidel and his story are pretty astonishing.

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