Cuba and the Cameraman: Director Jon Alpert Talks Mining Five Decades Worth of Footage to Document a Dictatorship

When documentarian Jon Alpert was first invited to visit Cuba in 1972, he didn’t realize he’d just started a project that would continue (off and on) for the next 45 years of his life. But now, a year after Fidel Castro died at the age of 90, Alpert’s career-spanning passion project is complete.

Cuba and the Cameraman is culled from more than 1,000 hours of Alpert’s footage over five decades. The film, which premiered to enthusiastic reviews at the Venice International Film Festival in September, primarily follows four sets of characters—three Cuban families and Castro himself, whom Alpert was given rare, personal access to from the 1970s all the way until his death.

Jon Alpert’s film journalism has taken him all over the globe, and he has provided groundbreaking coverage of numerous world-altering events, including the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China, the Cambodian Genocide, and the Persian Gulf War. Alpert has won three duPont-Columbia Awards, he’s received two Academy Awards nominations (both in the documentary short category), and he’s won 16 national Emmys.

But since 1972, Cuba has been Alpert’s first love. Cuba and the Cameraman is poised to stand as one of the definitive historical documents of what the lives of Cuban citizens were really like under Castro’s presidency. Alpert spoke with MovieMaker about his film, including how he approached going through those 1,000 hours of footage, working with Netflix, and what Castro meant to him. 

Daniel Joyaux, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When you decided to make this film, what was it like sifting through an archive of more than 1,000 hours of footage?  

Jon Alpert (JA): Well, it’s hard for someone like me who has a very short attention span. But because I’ve had this story inside me for decades trying to get out, I sort of feel like an elephant that’s been pregnant for 45 years.

But I’ve made a lot of movies and filmmakers know you spend a lot of time in the editing room. Like it or not, that’s part of the deal.

One of the tragedies is that there are some missing parts of that thousand hours that we were hunting for. We had a flood ten years into the project. I remember everything that we shot in those early days, and I know what we’ve lost. We really hunted for that material, but I think it was among the footage that just got so waterlogged we threw it out at the time. We never thought 35 years ago that one day we’d need it to tell this whole history.

MM: When you’re deciding which parts of the footage to use, what sort of things are you looking for?  

JA: Well, our film is organized basically around four sets of characters: Fidel, and then the three families that I’m following over the years. So I’m looking for tapes associated with those people. We shot a lot of things in Cuba over the years, especially in the first two decades. But once we got past those two decades, I had conceived of this film, and conceived of telling the story of Cuba through these three families and Fidel.

In the latter part of the film, when I realized I was going to tell this story, I had outgrown the determination never to appear in the film, to never have my voice in the film. In the early part of my filmmaking, I was determined to adopt a style that was different from the other network correspondents I was working beside. I didn’t think the way that they worked served the best interest of the audience. It was often about them. So I cut myself out of everything. But toward the end of this film I realized I had become a character just as much as the three families and Fidel.

MM: How did Netflix become involved with the project?

JA: As soon as I sent this rough material to them, they became very interested, and about a week later they said that they’d like to work with me. They’ve been a great partner. They basically asked me what resources I needed. I initially underestimated and Matt [producer Matthew O’Neill] said, “You’re gonna need a lot more time in the editing room.” And Matt was right and I was wrong.

MM: And when in the chronology of the project did you first start showing footage to Netflix?

 JA: I don’t remember for sure, but I think about a year ago. But I’ll tell you, I do remember showing some of the material to Netflix’s people—people I didn’t know—in a dark room, and I sweated through the whole presentation. But all filmmakers really have to believe very strongly in their heart that the stories they’re trying to tell are important. Otherwise you’ll just never be able to get through all of the stuff that we have to go through in order to make our films. And I think I really believed that this was an important story to tell, and I convinced Netflix and they agreed with me.

MM: Can you tell us what the budget was?

JA: I don’t know whether Netflix wants me to tell what the budget was. But what Netflix said to me—and it was very refreshing—was, “We want to give you the resources you need as a filmmaker to tell your story. We want you to realize your vision as an artist, and whatever you need, we’re going to make sure you have.” There really wasn’t much back and forth. We figured out what the cost would be, and they said it looked right.

MM: How much time did it take to do the final edit?

JA: We were working the week before we sent this to Venice. I can tell you a story. So film editors—make sure you check the subtitling of your work. We were lucky enough to be selected for the Venice Film Festival. I was very happy we got into Venice, but it meant we had to put the film in Italian. And when we got the film back from the place that puts the subtitles on, they ruined it. They put all the “Ummms” in, they literally translated every word, and the screen was full of punctuations; it was like reading a book instead of watching a movie. So we had to redo the whole thing.

And I say to young filmmakers out there, you don’t need to literally translate everything. You just need to give the viewer as fast and as short a summary as you can of what’s being said, so they can stay in the scene and not spend the time reading, not able to be enveloped by what’s happening.

The director in Cuba

MM: You’ve been going to Cuba since 1972. Do you recall any sort of moment that you realized your documentation of Cuba would become the biggest part of your professional and creative life?

JA: I can’t say that. I can say there were times in which our reports changed Cuban history—I can’t really judge whether for good or for bad—and had consequences for millions of people, and had consequences for us as filmmakers. There was a time in the late ’70s and ’80s where I was racing all over the world, going to wherever the crisis was or where the unfortunate war happened to be. And I often was the first camera there and the first person to tell the story in those places. So I think there was a time in which there were so many things going on that I lost sight of my first love. But that love was certainly rekindled.

MM: Who do you think is the ideal audience for this movie—someone who knows a lot about Cuba and wants this personal approach, or someone who knows comparatively little about Cuba and wants an entry point?

JA: I think this is a film for anybody with any level of knowledge. I think there’s a universality in seeing people trying to build a certain type of society, and the issues they’re dealing with are the issues we wrestle with in every country all over the world.

We’ve shown this movie to Cuban diplomats and they say this is the movie they want to show their kids when their kids ask them what Cuba was like.

MM: You have more personal experience with Castro than just about any American ever. What do you think is the objective truth of who he was? If you wrote the New York Times obituary for him, what would it say?  

JA: I think the New York Times obituary sort of agreed with my opinion that he rose to the level of importance as one of the top figures of the 20th century. For every single Cuban, Fidel was basically the most important element in their lives. On a personal level, I treated Fidel like I treated my other friends in Cuba. I’m looking in his icebox and seeing where he sleeps. The sorts of invasions that I make in Fidel’s house are the same invasions I make with my other characters.

MM: Do you expect your documentation of Cuba to continue or did Castro’s death provide a natural ending to that part of your life?

JA: I don’t think I have another Cuban film in me. Forty-five years is a long time to be carrying a story around. Sometimes you want to let what you’ve made speak for itself, and you don’t need to continue walking down that road.

I have a number of other films that I’ve been nursing along for some period of time. It’s unfortunate; sometimes we have films that are very important to us, but we don’t have the resources to finish them. If we think that they’re important, we find ways to at least continue to record, but we don’t have the funds or the resources to get into the editing room. I can exploit myself, and I can go out and film something, and I don’t care whether I get paid or not. But I can’t ask that of editors. So I think there are probably lots of unfinished films that directors are nursing along year after year, and I was lucky enough that Netflix helped me finish this one. MM

Cuba and the Cameraman is available on Netflix November 24, 2017. All images courtesy of Netflix.

1 Comment

  1. Jon Alpert

    November 24, 2017 at 9:02 am

    Thanks for a nice thoughtful review.
    Hope everyone enjoys the film.
    And thanks to Netflix’s support of
    independent filmmakers and diverse
    voices

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