Over the 40 years that he had been visiting Cuba, American documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert found a country imbued with revolutionary zeal, pushed to the edge by American sanctions and geopolitical changes, but held together by courage.

American reports of Cuba’s death are greatly exaggerated, Alpert discovers in Cuba and the Cameraman. The spirit of the country built by Fidel Castro’s revolution is best captured by a line by one of its subjects, a small-time criminal who cleans up his act and becomes a successful businessman: “You just have to have faith and guts to succeed.”

The 114-minute documentary is being streamed on Netflix. Cuba and the Cameraman is an example of both observational cinema and embedded journalism, in which Alpert uses his access to Castro to better understand the Cuban experiment.

Alpert first travelled to Cuba in the early 1970s to see whether its socialist policies could apply to labour movements he had been covering in his native New York City. Among the recurring characters in the documentary is a trio of farming brothers led by Cristobal, who never stops grinning even when times get hard.

Fidel Castro in Cuba and the Cameraman. Courtesy Netflix.

Alpert first catches Castro’s eye by stashing his camera equipment on a baby carriage (he was accompanied by his wife and infant daughter on some of his visits). El Jefe beckons Alpert and gives him the first of a series of interviews.

Alpert is also the only American to accompany Castro and his posse on their first visit to America. The flight has a delightfully candid moment in which Castro declares that he doesn’t need a bullet-proof vest since he has a “moral vest”.

Castro humours Alpert’s American-style direct questioning, even as his handlers seem a bit startled. Alpert’s access dries up in later years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the beginning of a rough phase for the Cuban economy. The later portions of the documentary reveal the manner in which some Cubans battle endemic food shortages while others choose to flee to America.

Alpert’s admiration for Cuba doesn’t blind him to its problems. Although Alpert is loath to critiquing Castro and ignores some of the leader’s authoritarian measures, the filmmaker understands what many Western observers often miss about Cuba: the ones who stayed back believe that another, non-American world, is possible.

Both critics and cheerleaders find space in Alpert’s expansive narrative. He finds frustration but also perseverance – the long view of history in action. His palpable love for the Cuban people is best brought out in his repeated meetings with the farming brothers who endure, whatever the hardship, like Cuba itself.

Cuba and the Cameraman (2017).

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