Cuba and the Cameraman is an idiosyncratic and pleasantly revealing film about the past forty years of Cuba’s revolution. The film is made by Jon Alpert, an award-winning documentarian who makes no effort to conceal his affection for ordinary Cubans, even as he shows the shortcomings of their political system. The cumulative power of the film comes from Alpert repeatedly going back to Cuba and filming the same handful of characters – the street-smart Luis, who lives in a shabby alley in Havana, the ambitious girl Caridad, who becomes a mother and finally an emigrant to the US, and the farmer Cristobal and his two brothers, who try to make a living off a small plot of land in the countryside.
Looming over the lives of these ordinary Cubans is the figure of Fidel Castro, whom Alpert managed to film on multiple occasions, from the self-confident revolutionary of the 1970’s to the graying leader of the 1990’s, worried about the end of foreign aid after the breakup of the USSR. Alpert even managed to film the ailing 90 year-old one last time, shortly before the “Maximum Leader” passed away last year.
The film starts with Castro’s funeral in 2016 and the large grief-stricken crowds who may have lost their enthusiasm for the Communist Party’s rule but could not help but mourn the leader who had come to stand for the very idea of Cuba. “Castro was all they had,” said Alpert in a Q&A after the screening. “Most Cubans never knew another leader.”
In his earlier footage, Alpert is almost giddy with excitement about Cuba’s socialist experiment. “It’s 1975 and the Revolution seems to be working,” he says to the camera, as he shows stores full of goods and people enjoying life in Havana. He enjoys shots of rum with Cristobal on his farm, trying – but failing – to beat the older man at arm wrestling, amidst much merriment on all sides.
Council President Terry McCarthy interviews director Jon Alpert
But Alpert remains true to his documentary craft, charting the problems that loomed larger and larger in Cuba during the 1980’s and 90’s. He films the chaotic Mariel Boatlift in 1980 when tens of thousands of Cubans chose to sail to the US to escape what many said was the “lack of freedom” in Cuba. In the 1990’s, when Soviet aid dried up, he shows the factories languishing and the empty refrigerators of families struggling to feed their children.
His street friend Luis ends up in prison, probably for some dealings on the black market, and when he visits a school and asks the students what they most want in life, one girl says simply “food”. In the countryside the three brothers are also struggling – hungry neighbors have stolen, killed and eaten the two oxen they used to plough the field and they are forced to farm by hand.
In the 2000’s Cuba opened up to tourism, and Alpert shows how Cubans who once had professional jobs as engineers or doctors end up selling souvenirs at small stalls to the foreign visitors who bring precious foreign currency with them. He shows how the Cubans’ refrigerators are again filling up with food, but still one senses this is a people not yet fully in control of their own destiny. On his final visit to the brothers’ farm all three men are buried in the graveyard and only their sister is still alive, at 88, living in the same small town that has not noticeably changed over the course of 40 years. In some ways, this is a more accurate reflection of the course of Castro’s revolution than the shiny new buildings and ATM’s in Havana that were built with foreign money. Cuba and the Cameraman is a moving love story about Cuba, a country where Alpert has made many friends. But it is a story that is still waiting for its happy ending.