Cuba has had something of a pop culture renaissance in recent years ― your friend with the most frequent flier miles probably jumped on the opportunity to visit as soon as President Obama eased travel and trade restrictions in 2016, and Kim Kardashian famously salsa danced (awkwardly) in an all-white bodycon skirt on an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
This is not the Cuba of Jon Alpert’s new documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman,” set to debut on Netflix November 24. In the doc, the veteran, Oscar-nominated filmmaker (“Baghdad ER,” “Alive Day Memories”) compiles footage from his numerous visits to embattled Cuba from the late ’70s to 2016, paying special attention to three central characters and their families, as well as one additional very central character: Fidel Castro. You may have heard of him.
As a journalist, Alpert was able to get permission to visit the country ― a place that interested him at that specific time because while New Yorkers were fighting for social advances, “down in Cuba, they were implementing a lot of these social programs that we were only dreaming about here in the United States,” as he told BUILD’s Ricky Camilleri in a recent interview. What he found in the nascent Communist state fascinated him, as did the Cuban government’s unwillingness to accommodate his reporting trips.
“There’s nothing that gets a filmmaker or reporter or curious New Yorker excited like being told you can’t see something,” he said of his determination to visit the country in early days. “That door shuts in your face and we’re kicking it open.”
Not to mention the chance access Alpert gained to Cuba’s elusive leader, Castro, over the years. In the thousands of hours of footage Alpert captured, some standouts made the film from the decades following Alpert’s chance meeting with the leader (Castro spotted Alpert and his team pushing camera equipment in a baby carriage and wandered over, beginning an unusual friendship), like a “Cribs”-style house tour, or Castro jokily signing a school absence note for Alpert’s daughter.
Separate from the unpredictable actions of the leader, the ups and downs of what has always been a somewhat mysterious country to most of us, even though it’s less than an hour flight from the shores of Florida, are charted through everyday people Alpert follows. Like Cristobal, a farmer who works the land with his brothers, who is sometimes shown reaping great rewards from his harvest and thriving, sometimes slumped, depressed, under a tree. The individual narratives and the friendships he struck up with these characters, amidst the turbulent national economic scene in the country over the decades, kept Alpert coming back and back and back, camera rolling all the while.
Here’s what we didn’t see when we were keeping up with the Kardashians and ogling that one friend who got a tourist visa’s Instagram feed: the grappling with the sense of revolution ― Free healthcare! Regulated food! Everyone takes what they need from a common supply! ― with the years-long realities of barren shelves and miserly portions. On one of Alpert’s visits, there isn’t quite enough bread to go around, but in later years the bread factory itself has crumbled when he walks the same city block. We’ve heard of Cuba’s ups and downs on a national scope, but it’s quite another thing to meet the people impacted by the headlines, as we do in “Cuba and the Cameraman.”
Now that the borders are more porous and visas are somewhat more available, sure, it’s technically possible to visit Cuba. But even if you snag one of those coveted flights, you’ll likely be whisked off to the fairytale island built for tourists, an expensive carnival facade created to inject money into the country’s economy and keep those vintage cars looking like ’gram-baity kitsch, rather than rusted out old rigs. Despite all this, Alpert offers a piece of advice regarding Cuba: “Three words: You. Should. Go.”