'Cuba and the Cameraman': Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Laudable and lively.

New York City-based Jon Alpert's documentary bowed out of competition at the Lido festival.

Four decades on the Caribbean island whiz by in Cuba and the Cameraman, veteran documentarian Jon Alpert's tribute to the Communist-run island and its citizens. Completed in the wake of longtime leader Fidel Castro's death late last year, it compiles footage shot for numerous earlier projects including some up-close-and-personal encounters with El Comandante himself — juxtaposed with visits with regular folks in town and country. After bowing to generally warm reactions in a non-competition slot at Venice, this accessibly illuminating Netflix production will likely score further festival slots, especially at events favoring non-fiction and political themes.

A two-time Oscar nominee (for documentary short subject) and multiple Emmy winner, Alpert co-founded Manhattan's Downtown Community Television Center in 1972, around the time he took his rudimentary monochrome video cameras to Cuba. He was back three years later: "It's 1975, and the Revolution seems to be working!" he enthuses in typically chirpy voiceover, amid festive scenes captured in vibrant, immediate style via his handheld equipment.

Always intrigued by new technology — and the power of the media — eagle-eyed Castro takes a keen interest in this lively, friendly American visitor toting somewhat bulky (but at the time truly cutting-edge) recording devices. This connection pays major dividends in 1979, when Alpert scores a berth on the jet taking the controversial leader — sporting his trademark military fatigues, grandiose facial hair and similarly outsize cigar at all times — to New York for a date with the United Nations.

All grinning, bearish charisma and articulate charm, Castro beguiles Alpert and the viewer alike with his bluff good humor. But this quickly turns to offended exasperation after U.S. customs engulf the party in bureaucratic red tape within minutes of his plane's tarmac touchdown. Present in the cabin throughout, Alpert lands a true exclusive — reportage pay dirt.

Castro is then only fleetingly seen in the second half of the film, which is dominated instead by Alpert's repeated, unannounced visits to a small handful of "ordinary" interviewees. Contents of refrigerators — sometimes barren, sometimes well-stocked — function as an effective, ad hoc barometer of the Revolution's fluctuating fortunes. In the scary, crumbling alleyways of inner Havana, street-smart Luis plays Virgil to the director's fearless, inquisitive Dante. Alpert also follows the fortunes of Caridad, an ambitious preteen when he first encounters her in the 1970s, all the way through her own motherhood and eventual emigration to the Estados Unidos

The real heart of Cuba and the Cameraman lies in the remote countryside, specifically in the wiry forms of three farming brothers who cope grinningly with abundance and shortage alike. Through them we see the tough social and economic impacts of Cuba's most difficult period, following the early-1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro's chief overseas benefactor. Stoic, sprightly and barely altering as they (literally) plow on well into old age, the hermanos respond twinklingly to Alpert's questioning. Summing up his desire to give a voice to the marginalized and overlooked, the munificent director even ponies up for an electric larynx when one of the brothers is rendered mute after an operation.

Throughout the film, Alpert helps keep subtitling to a minimum by providing instant, rapid-fire translations of his interlocutors' Spanish-language responses. A warm and engaging primer on a complex and controversial subject, Cuba and the Cameraman is itself very far from "revolutionary" either in content or style: Soundtrack music seldom lets up, with sad strings and/or piano deployed in the more downbeat interludes, such as the one dealing with Castro's demise.

Editor David Meneses keeps things bustling along at a lively clip, however, in a film which draws material from no fewer than 17 different credited archives. A work of old-school humanism that hovers between pro-Revolutionary fervor and a more objective documentary stance, Cuba and the Cameraman is sustained by the strong bonds of trust which the gregarious Alpert has evidently been able to maintain with Cubans from various echelons of this theoretically classless society. 

Production company: Netflix
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Jon Alpert
Producers: Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill, Jason Springarn-Koff, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Nishimura
Editor: David Meneses
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: Netflix

In English and Spanish
113 minutes

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