When self-taught New York documentarian Jon Alpert first traveled to Cuba in the 1970s, his state-of-the-art video equipment was so heavy that he and his wife and filmmaking partner, Keiko Tsuno, pushed it through Havana in a baby carriage. Over the next 40 years of visits, the hardware grew lighter and Alpert's connection to the island nation deepened. As the dynamic "Cuba and the Cameraman" reveals, it's a bond built on exuberance and curiosity.
Initially drawn by the ideals of the Cuban Revolution, Alpert never loses sight of them as the first blush of romance gives way to a clear-eyed chronicle of the regime's failures and struggles. His encounters with working-class city dwellers and peasant farmers take him off the prescribed tourist path and are bursting with life. In different ways, so too are his interactions with the charismatic Fidel Castro, striking in their informality.
But it's the salt-of-the-earth Borregos, a trio of farmer brothers and their sister, who give the film its most involving through-line, and its heart. They're in their 60s when Alpert first meets them, happily working the soil. Thirty-odd years later, having weathered tough times, they remain as committed to the land as ever. When one brother faces medical challenges, Alpert steps in where the country's underfunded — but still free to patients — healthcare system can't.
Alpert sums up his involvement in Cuba as "making friends" — no small thing given the fraught U.S.-Cuba political divide. As a decades-long, ground-level portrait of the country, his vibrant film is unprecedented.
‘Cuba and the Cameraman’
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; streaming on Netflix