Cuba Redux (Documentary Review: “Cuba & The Cameraman”)

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A documentary about Cuba, shot on location over a 45-year time span, offers a rare historical portrait of the island nation and its people, through Fidel: post-revolution to today. The country is still an enigma.

SnapShot Plot

When documentary filmmaker and New York media sensation, Jon Alpert literally snuck into Cuba in the early seventies, he didn’t know what he would find. His decades long fascination with Cuba and her people has resulted in Cuba and the Cameramanan amalgam of his many visits to (mainly) Havana in which he returns to the same three families, popping in for seemingly impromptu visits and in some cases having to do some old-fashioned detective work to even find them in the first place. The highlight of the film – and certainly what puts it in a league of its own – is arguably one of the most personal and candid relationships a Western journalist has ever had with Fidel Castro, the man. Indeed the charming, jovial, inquisitive, self-deprecating figure we see in repose is quite a jarring juxtaposition to the bulldog at the podium who was known to make public speeches that went on for hours at a pop. Alpert’s visits to Cuba began at a time when the Socialist rhetoric was a real and thriving belief in the heart of the Cuban people, whose very existence was propped up by the all-encompassing support of Mother Russia. In a number of years, of course, all that changed. Through each successive visit from Jon Alpert (doing his own camera work and translating out loud as he filmed) we see the deterioration of the infrastructure and the diminishing quality of life for the people as they struggle to survive, all the while smiling and behaving as if good times are just around the corner. Others aren’t convinced, however, and we see the tensions among the people escalate over the realities of mass emigration to the U.S.

 

 

Parting Shot

Having just returned from a week-long cruise around the island of Cuba, I was left with more questions than answers about her people and their true perspectives on the state of their country today. From Havana to Cienfuegos and Colonial Trinidad it seemed a bewildering brew of national pride (emphasis on free education and health care) set against an obvious and insidious black market for everything from rum and cigars to household goods and clothing. When doctors and teachers average a monthly salary of $40, it’s not hard to wonder why. And everywhere there was Fidel. Fidel on buildings and posters. Fidel on hats, shirts, and souvenirs. And in Santiago de Cuba, birthplace of Fidel, it’s like he never left.

Of course my measly time spent in Cuba, especially as an American tourist, couldn’t begin to scratch the surface of understanding life there, but our impressions and observations gathered by talking to guides and merchants and others began to beg the obvious question. Has the past 50 years of Communist dictatorship truly imprinted its ideology into the soul of the Cuban people, even against the collapse of the Soviet Union and strict U.S. sanctions, spelling devastation for the Cuban economy? Couple that with Cuba’s close geographical and familial proximity to the U.S. (many families are split between South FL and Cuba), as well as access to the Internet and social media. . . you start to wonder who’s telling the truth about the ‘good life in Cuba’ as opposed to towing the ‘party’ line, intimidated by a government who’s still in control of all aspects of life on the island.

In terms of the 45-year production schedule that makes up Cuba and the Cameraman, just comparisons will be made to the work of Richard Linklater with Boyhood, and even earlier to Michael Apted with his groundbreaking Up series in Britain (which followed the same group of school children into their adulthood). And with Cuba and the Cameraman, it’s hard not to appreciate the stubborn passion and drive it must have taken to keep coming back every five years or so, especially as the families themselves became quite dear to Jon Alpert and it must have been tough to see them struggling as they did. I think, however, it was also slightly jarring to see the filmmaker himself become such a character in his own production. Perhaps that’s just a conceit that I’m not personally all that comfortable with.

But the other takeaway, and one which may have been unavoidable, concerns the dynamic between Jon Alpert and Fidel Castro. As much as we may delight in seeing this disarming side of Fidel, it remains true that whatever conradeship his regime intended at the beginning, he did morph into a brutal dictator. Alpert seemed so delighted with himself to have achieved this ‘inner-circle’ rapport with Castro that I, for one, found it ever so slightly distracting from the purpose of the film. At times it felt like two films in one: the story of Jon & Fidel; and the story of Cuba’s post-revolution saga. You decide for yourselves.

 

Cuba and the Cameraman is presently streaming on Netflix.

Here’s an interesting interview that director, Jon Alpert did with PBS after the release last month of the documentary:

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YouTube trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsZ8hDutkeM

PBS Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wZIgG9Y2j4

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