Gil Scott-Heron wrote in the 1970s that “the revolution will not be televised.” Jon Alpert sure did try to, though.
Alpert is the director, screenwriter, and producer of the new Netflix documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman.” Its opening scenes are of an eerily quiet morning in Havana’s Malecón boulevard, the emblematic words “Patria o muerte” painted on a wall on the side of the road.
“We are in mourning,” a taxi driver tells Alpert. Sure enough you hear Raúl Castro over national radio announcing the death of Cuba’s long-standing revolutionary, Fidel Castro.
It’s a strong opening for a film that was released one day before the one-year anniversary of the iconic leader’s death.
Alpert first started going to the island with his wife in the early ‘70s after they founded the Downtown Community Television Center in New York and started to experiment with early iterations of the video camera, while uncovering the injustices of everyday living in the city.
“Just over the horizon down in Cuba there was a revolution going on. We heard that Fidel Castro was implementing the social programs that we were fighting for in New York,” narrates Alpert, referencing Cuba’s free healthcare, universal education, and public housing.
Alpert wanted to see the revolution up close and the ways in which Castro’s policies would transform the country and the world order.
The documentary features footage shot over four decades that chronicle the rapid changes of the island post-Revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the dire “special period,” and the modest economic liberalization of the new millennium. But it also documents what didn’t change under Castro. On that end are the first friends Alpert makes during his first trip to Cuba: the Borregos, three farmer brothers and their sister. Alpert first meets them when they are in their 60s and every time he pays them a visit they demonstrate an unflinching commitment to their farm.
The highlights of the film are the decades-long connections Alpert made with ordinary Cubans who experienced the good and bad times of Castro’s Cuba. He can’t seem to forget them, and neither can they.
But we also see the unlikely camaraderie between an American journalist and the late revolutionary. Sparked by Castro’s interest in their equipment, Alpert was the only American on the plane that took Castro from Cuba to New York for his historic speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Alpert captures rare candid footage of Castro, even making his way into the leader’s suite.
It isn’t a story about the history of Cuba or why the revolution succeeded, or even why it failed. Instead, it creates a direct line between the viewer and those living on the island.
When people and journalists at the time were looking at those who were fleeing the island or in exile, Alpert chose to fix his lens on those who stayed. Like his friend Luis Amores who goes from dealing in the black market, to prison, to eventually running his own private hardware business.
It is a window into the recent history of Cuba from the people themselves. It doesn’t romanticize the poverty or Cuba’s mysterious allure but shows Cubans striving to overcome adverse circumstances on their own accord. Many of them have improved their lives by establishing hydroponic gardens, urban farms, and private businesses, among other ventures.
The documentary can feel apolitical at times, whether it was an editorial decision or not, it doesn’t thoroughly discuss Cuba’s human rights record under Castro. Sometimes it even felt like an ode to the commander himself.
Ultimately, and most importantly, it’s a beautiful story that chronicles friendship with the resilient Cuban people.