Island Adventure: Jon Alpert’s ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ provides an inside look at the Castro era

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Opening at New York's IFC Theater on Nov. 24, the Netflix production Cuba and the Cameraman is a fascinating time capsule rich with insights into a secretive land. Shot over a 45-year period, the documentary follows farmers, professionals and politicians grappling with change both local and international. Culled from over a thousand hours of footage, it provides an unprecedented insider's look at Cuba.

Director Jon Alpert has won 15 Emmy Awards for activist documentaries covering street gangs, drugs, crime and war. Through Downtown Community Television Center, which he helped found, he has mentored generations of young filmmakers.

Speaking by phone, Alpert says that Cuba and the Cameraman is the culmination of his career. And yet he started out trying to accomplish something very different

"We were young, naive, unskilled people who had never had anything on television or in a movie theatre before," he says. "We were showing our films on the street corners in Chinatown, places like that. A form of community organizing, bringing films about local issues to the people."

Alpert wanted to visit Cuba because the country was dealing with the same problems the poor in New York City were: health issues, housing, education. It was also a chance to explore human-rights issues that had polarized Cuban exiles.

"We didn't want to take anybody's word for what was going on," he explains. "We wanted to see for ourselves. So we got on a sailboat and left."

Travel to Cuba was largely prohibited to United States citizens in the 1970s, when Alpert started his project. Cuban authorities weren't too happy about visitors from the U.S. either.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Alpert continues. "But once we got to Havana, we were more or less 'boat arrested' and not allowed to leave the ship. The fellow who had the ship was a ne'er-do-well who declared that he was a citizen of the world. He issued himself his own passport written in Esperanto and filled his boat with children's drawings and musical instruments to trade with the Cubans in defiance of the blockade.

"It was not anything that we had experienced before, but it seemed okay to us. But it seemed that the previous time he had sailed to Cuba, exiles used his boat as cover to strafe the beach with machine-gun fire. We didn't know it, but the Cubans told him never to come back there with his stupid boat and stupid rainbow flag and stupid passport. So they wouldn't let us off the boat."

Describing himself as nails scraping across a blackboard. Alpert nagged authorities with annoying questions ("If Cuba's so great, why don't you let us see it?" "If people are happy here, why can't we talk to them?") until they finally gave him permission to take a heavily guarded, three-hour tour of a model housing project and a few other spots.

It took another two years of schmoozing with Cuban diplomats during baseball games in Central Park (games Alpert's team had to deliberately lose) to build the connections necessary for shooting permits in Cuba.

"They still didn't really trust us," Alpert says about the next trip, when he found himself isolated on a rural campground while his "guide" used their car and funds to visit his girlfriends.

Stranded, Alpert and his team left the camp by themselves and walked down the road. They met a farmer, Cristobal Borrego, standing with two oxen. That chance encounter led to a friendship that lasted for decades.

"Cristobal and his two brothers were farming in a primitive way, like we did back in North Dakota a hundred years ago," Alpert remembers. "He became my first friend in Cuba, he and his two brothers, and we continued to visit them over the next 45 years."

Alpert and his team traveled across Cuba that trip, ending up with a documentary, Cuba the People, that was broadcast on PBS. During subsequent trips he befriended two other families he would continue to document, as well as forming a relationship with Fidel Castro.

The Castro in Cuba and the Cameraman is unlike any version of the leader seen in American media before, a tribute to Alpert's persistence, persuasiveness and curiosity. The personal glimpses Alpert captures of Castro, as well as the other Cubans in his documentary, turn foreigners into neighbors. Spend any time with Cristobal, and you see him as a friend, not a menace.

Cuba and the Cameramandoesn't shy away from the controversial aspects of Castro's regime. But Alpert lets viewers decide for themselves the effects of revolutionary politics. Over the years we see how events like the loss of Russian subsidies affect the people of Cuba.

"In the same way that people age, political systems can age also," Alpert observes. "I wanted viewers to experience what daily life was like in the revolution over many years."

Cuba and the Cameramanis also a guide to video technology over the last 50 years. "The first time we went to Cuba, we had the first generation of black-and-white, reel-to-reel Portapaks," Alpert explains. "Those tapes have not fared well over the years. The second trip we went with the very first-ever color Portapak, made by JVC. It was serial number one or two, I don't remember which. They were made by hand. I don't think they were ever successful in the market.

"It had a lot of technical problems," he goes on. "Whenever there was a change in the light levels, your colors would change. It also had a nasty habit of spooling out tape from the take-up reel. It was not very sensitive, so you needed an incredible amount of light. You could only film from eleven in the morning to one in the afternoon. It was the pioneer days of video, no wireless mikes, for example, and postproduction, with the first time-based correctors, was very unfriendly."

Alpert and his team originally edited their material at the fabled TV Lab at WNET, run by David Loxton. The lab supported works by Nam June Paik, Ed Emshwiller, Bill Viola and other pioneers in video art.

"I'm very happy that those early technologies live in our rearview mirror," Alpert says. "Today's iPhones are a thousand times better than those early video cameras that we lugged around Cuba."

By testing equipment in the field, Alpert was able to tell lab technicians at Sony how to improve their cameras—by integrating microphones, for example, instead of requiring separate attachments. Interformat editing was another huge development, one that helped democratize video production.

"The technology to do simple editing at one time required machines costing $800,000 to a million dollars," Alpert recalls. "With interformat editing, you could connect small field cameras to the big mastering recorders."

By following characters—Cristobal and his family, Fidel Castro and his—through the ups and downs of their lives, Alpert has built a surprising amount of suspense in Cuba and the Cameraman.

"How do I explain it best?" he asks. "This has had a 45-year gestation period. My life's work as a filmmaker has been poured into this project. And you don't know exactly how an audience is going to react. Will they identify with these characters? Will they want to take this ride with you?"

Cuba and the Cameraman screened at this year's Venice Film Festival. Italian subtitles are a requirement for screenings, and Alpert and a friend from an Italian semi-pro soccer team spent a desperate weekend revising and streamlining the subtitles.

"I'm sitting in this theatre, nine hundred people, the Netflix executive team sitting to my left," Alpert recalls. "Nobody's seen this film before. The first joke, nobody laughs. I start getting cold sweat, chills, like I'm bombing. But by the end we were getting the reactions you hope for as a filmmaker.

"But when the film goes to black, there was this complete silence in the theatre. I thought this is so humiliating, I'm never going to make another film for Netflix, I'm a disgrace. But then the entire theatre got up en masse and started roaring. I started weeping. It was 45 years in the making, and you never know how people will react."

It's not surprising the Venice viewers responded so positively. In every shot of Cuba and the Cameraman you can sense Alpert's humanity and empathy.