Cuba has historically been a site of popular glamour and mystery to Americans, but most have never had to opportunity to see the country for themselves. Aside from their cigars, the nation’s cultural allure has been inaccessible to foreign travelers due to a complicated political history brought about by Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution. Thanks to Jon Alpert (“Redemption”), Cuba’s obscure charm is exposed in the form of raw footage in his new Netflix documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman.”
The documentary features footage than spans over 45 years and Alpert, who began his roots in New York City activism, borrows from the French, cinéma verité style of filmmaking that is highly direct in its formal approach and that it aims to reveal a truth about a harsh reality: in the case of this film, the toll of socialism in a struggling nation. What becomes clear in Alpert’s work is that over the 45 years he returned to Cuba, a lot changed — his subjects aged, the consequences of socialism in food and medicine scarcity began to truly sink in — but a lot of the country’s progress became static. The toughest moments to watch on-screen are those that grimly reveal that the nation and its people have remained stagnant, stuck in a place beyond political repair, a place with barren streets and roofs caved in. A place without water to drink.
Alpert follows the lives of three different groups of people, and as the years pass, there is an amount of audience investment and empathy that naturally comes along with seeing these repeated subjects on screen. They color the piece with humanity. He tracks a man named Luis as he goes in and out of jail, a woman named Caridad who begins as a bright schoolgirl who dreamt of being a nurse but instead wed at the age of 14. And then there’s Gregorio, Cristobal and Angel, three campesinos (farm workers) who are reminiscent of the playful fraternal bond of Super Mario Brothers. They eventually have their livestock stolen and lose their means to work, but somehow they sustain happiness and remind us that you don’t need teeth to have a beaming smile and that rum should be carried on a person at all times.
It is never explained how Alpert and his crew were able to travel in and out of Cuba so freely, especially during a period of heightened political tensions, nor is it explained why Alpert was allowed in such intimate settings with Castro, like his private plane. Alpert’s American speech subconsciously seems to distract and detract from the authenticity of these ordinary Spanish speakers that cannot speak English, so using only subtitles may have created more of a narrative flow.
Though what really dazzles most about the piece is not Alpert’s impressive 45-year commitment, but rather the simple lives and stories of Cubans who find joy in the smallest things. We could all learn a lot from them.