The filmmaker discusses his latest project Cuba and the Cameraman coming to Netflix on November 24, 2017.
Director Jon Alpert
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
It’s been nearly a year since the death of long-time Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Tonight a conversation with producer and filmmaker, Jon Alpert, who had unprecedent access to Castro and to the country. His new documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman”, which has been decades in the making, premiers on Netflix later this month.
We are glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with filmmaker, Jon Alpert, coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: Jon Alpert is often the first reporter and the last reporter while documenting war and rebellion around the globe, but perhaps his magnum opus is the documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman”, which has been 45 years in the making.
It features unprecedent access to the late Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The film premiers to the world on Netflix and select theaters on November 24, nearly one year after Castro’s death. Before our conversation, here now a clip from “Cuba and the Cameraman”.
Tavis: How did you develop that rapport with Castro?
Jon Alpert: I guess I broke all the rules. You know, there’s normal protocol for dealing with him. You’ve met him and you sit in a chair and you wait and you wait and you wait.
But I sat in the chair and then I said, “Hey, Fidel, where you do live? Can I go to the bedroom? Let me see where you sleep. What’s in the refrigerator?” His staff was horrified. Nobody’d ever done that before. “Come on, Jon. Let’s go.” So I think he liked that.
Tavis: Yeah. Give me your impressions of him after covering him so many times.
Alpert: He’s extraordinarily charismatic. You feel like he’s actually interested in you. I don’t know if you found that, but he wants to know about you.
Tavis: He does.
Alpert: Then he wants to talk about the things that that triggers in his mind. Like he finds out you grew up in Pennsylvania. He finds out about your family. He wants to talk about that. A very, very curious man.
Tavis: What was it about you — set your modesty aside for a second. What was it about you that you think got him to be comfortable with you?
Alpert: Well, I think initially he was just curious because he saw me and my wife and her cousin pushing around our equipment in a baby carriage. It was the strangest thing he ever saw. The equipment in those days was so heavy, that was the only we could carry it. He came over and I was terrified. He’s talking to me and I can’t answer.
The next time I saw him, I almost tackled him because I knew that I had missed my chance and I felt like I was a failure. But he knew what we were doing. He knew what we were doing in New York. We have a community media center and we train lots of young people. We make films trying to get better housing, better healthcare. These were things that he tried to fight that revolution for. He liked that.
And I was also in war zones all over the world and I think he was intrigued. I think he was intrigued that somebody like a slob like me would be on a mountaintop with the guerrillas in Nicaragua. I think he liked that.
Tavis: How much about your work, that work, did he want to know about?
Alpert: He was very curious and he was watching things. I mean, he would see the reports that we would do from Central America or from the Philippines and he’d talk about that with us.
Tavis: When did you know that he was aware of who you were? Because you saw him so many times and spent so much time with him, when did you know you had struck up, if not a friendship, that he knew who you were?
Alpert: When he took pickles from my plate. When we were on the airplane, he came over and he put his arm around me and he saw that I had a pickle on my TV dinner, he took that and ate my pickle. It sort of showed a level of comradeship and friendship. After that, we were just sort of off to the races and I could ask him any question and he’d tell me stories that he never told anybody else.
Tavis: What did you make of his openness? I’m trying to find a better word than openness, but, again, as you said, I spent a little time with him and it is so nerve-wracking and so disappointing, quite frankly, when you talk to U.S. politicians that everybody wants to stay on message.
And you almost feel like they’re never giving you an earnest, in-depth response to the questions that you’re asking. So that when a politician finally does open up, it makes real news because they stay on message so much.
And with Castro, it was fascinating for me at least that you felt like this guy was giving you earnest answers to the questions that you ask. Did you feel the same way?
Alpert: I did, and as a director, one of the important things is to be able to sort of separate the phoniness from the fact.
Tavis: Yeah, sure.
Alpert: So Bill Clinton was really, really good at acting and making you think. He would look at you like this and his aides would come to take him away and he’d go through this — you know the James Brown routine where James Brown…
Tavis: Would put on the cape and yet…
Alpert: And dragging him off the stage, right?
Tavis: I’ve been through that with Bill Clinton a few times, yeah [laugh].
Alpert: So he’s looking at you and, you know…
Tavis: Don’t make me go! Don’t make me go!
Alpert: Right. Don’t make me go! But you know he wants to go and you know it’s an act.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Alpert: He’s good at it, but he’s not perfect. With Fidel, I don’t think it was an act. I felt that he really was genuinely interested in you. How many hours did he talk to you when he talked to you?
Tavis: About five or six hours.
Alpert: Right. It starts at 2:00 in the morning…
Tavis: And he goes to breakfast time and you’re out of tape. I literally ran out of tape talking to Castro. I mean, how did you process how loquacious this guy was?
Alpert: You know, he had good answers, but you could contend his answers. I disagreed with him on lots of things and he accepted that. And I also had firsthand knowledge of what was happening to the people. That’s the other part of this film.
I didn’t only follow Fidel, but I followed, for example, a peasant family from the countryside and watched what happened as the economics of the revolution began to fall apart and how the people suffered. So I had this knowledge, so it wasn’t like I’m flying in from New York and I don’t know anything. I have a lot of friends in Cuba who have to live the daily life in Cuba and I could talk with Fidel about that.
Tavis: And he received that in what way, that critique?
Alpert: Well, you know, he explained from his point of view why the Cuban economy basically was out of gas, but he blamed it on the Soviet Union and he blamed it on the blockade. I think those are two important factors, really important factors.
But they’ve also sort of been singing the same song for the past 50 years without much improvisation and doing the same thing, doing the same thing, doing the same thing, and sometimes it didn’t work.
Tavis: Because he was such a controversial person, certainly in this country and other parts of the world and even in Cuba, there are people who had, obviously, issues with him.
Alpert: For sure.
Tavis: How did you process your relationship with him knowing there were people who despised this man, Castro?
Alpert: It’s my job to get that access, to be able to capture something that nobody else has seen, and then to give it to you and then let you make up your own decision. I’ve had people who have lived their whole lives in opposition to Fidel and his policies who watched our film and cried and wept because they felt that we had captured the Cuban experience.
Tavis: I could have started with this question, but take me back to when you first became fascinated, enamored with him enough to want to talk to him, to cover him.
Alpert: Well, I was fascinated with Cuba first. I’m growing up in the late 60s and the early 70s were fighting for better housing, were fighting for better healthcare, were fighting with the cops in the streets, were trying to end the Vietnam War. And off in the distance, forbidden for Americans, is a place that is trying to have better healthcare, trying to have better schools, so I wanted to see that.
I didn’t want to take anybody’s word for it. I wanted to see for myself. I’m an ornery person and I don’t want to get somebody else’s word for it. I want to see for myself. So that’s what attracted me. And I was there enough so many times that eventually I bumped into Fidel. It was basically happenstance that he seemed to like me and I seemed to get along well with him. Wasn’t planned.
Tavis: All these other times, the other times you spent with him, I take it those weren’t happenstance. Those were planned. You reached out for him, but you…
Alpert: Well, you know, they had the Mariel Bay boatlift. Mariel Bay boatlift was when about 100,000 Cubans got on boats and came to the United States. They had “Scarface” last night on TV. I was watching that, right?
Tavis: I watch it all the time [laugh], yeah.
Alpert: And they wouldn’t let any foreign reporters go to Mariel Bay to see what was really happening. Jimmy Carter said, “Everybody who wants to come to the United States as a freedom fighter, we’ll take you all.” Fidel heard this and he said, “Well, I’m gonna show Jimmy Carter a thing or two” and he opened up the prisons…
Tavis: Opened the prisons, yeah, exactly.
Alpert: He opened up the mental hospitals and he packed all these guys onto the boat, but there wasn’t any proof. And we went there and we filmed this and we reported this. It was nightly news. 15 minutes after it was on the air, Jimmy Carter goes on TV, stops the boatlift.
And what I didn’t know is that they had 300,000 people who were still waiting to leave who got stuck. And when you renounce a revolution, your job is threatened, your housing is threatened, you’re an enemy of the people of the neighborhood.
It was a terrible social problem and I was blamed for stopping the boatlift. So my access to Fidel and my access to a lot of things in Cuba all of a sudden narrowed down because I told the truth about what I had seen that day.
That’s sort of when I began thinking about this movie because the thing that they couldn’t stop me from filming in Cuba were my friends, the peasants, the street hustler on the street, the little girl that I met when she was seven years old. They couldn’t stop me from filming that, so I began doing that. And I had to sort of sneak in to see Fidel.
I was with a bunch of buddies of mine, Italian journalists, and they said, “Hey, Jamani, come with us. We’re gonna see Fidel tonight.”: That’s the time he wrote that note to my daughter that excused her from her absence in high school. So sometimes Fidel invited me, but sometimes I sort of came in the back door.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. Over the years of not just covering Fidel, but covering Cuba, how have you viewed the way that island has changed, the people on that island?
Alpert: Well, the thing I’d sort of like to comment about is our foreign policy towards Cuba. You know, if you got in your car every day and you wanted to go to Grandma’s house and the car doesn’t start, and you get in the next day and you get in the next day and you never get from your house to Grandma’s house and you do this for 50 years, not a good plan.
And the isolation of Cuba, the blockading of Cuba, the trying separating, certainly didn’t change the government down there at all. It just helped compound the suffering of the people.
The thing that worked in terms of changing things in Cuba is when we had reproachma, when people like you and me could easily go down there and talk to Cubans. All of a sudden, things began changing within the country and I think that’s the real tragedy.
The other thing is that why not let them have an experiment? If they want to try to have free schools, they want to have this type of healthcare, why not just sort of like cheer them from the sidelines instead of kicking them in the shins for 50 years? Maybe we would have learned something instead of just picking on these little guys.
Tavis: One reason why you kick them in the shins — if I could just accept your question, your premise — one of the reasons for kicking them in the shins is that the Miami Cubans want you to kick him in the shins because of what he did to them and because of, more broadly, the human rights violations that people say he engaged in.
Alpert: For sure, but what really, really worked in terms of a sort of fomenting dissent within the country, free speech, was when Americans went in there, when people interacted with Americans. You know, our culture and our people are our best weapon.
It’s not this, and we’re like very, very attractive as a people. That’s when the greatest change happened in Cuba, not when we were separated, but when we we’re together.
Tavis: Let me jump ahead and then I’ll go back.
Tavis: How concerned are you that now, thanks to Obama, at least, there was this opening and there have always been those who are afraid of what American enterprise will ultimately do to the island. Are you one of those persons concerned about American commerce one day?
Alpert: Yeah. I think that our economic power is substantial and who knows what’s going to happen? You know, Raul is basically term-limited himself. He’s only in power for six more months and then he’s gone. And I think it’s a really provocative mystery what’s going to happen there in Cuba. I’m really curious how the people in Miami are going to react to this film.
I know the Cuban Americans who have seen this cry through the film and feel that it captures the experience on the island. It’s the film they want to show to their kids to explain what happened in Cuba for the past 50 years.
Tavis: How do you do that? How do you produce a film that gets that kind of reaction from American Cubans and yet is fair or tells the true story about Castro? How do you balance that?
Alpert: It took me 45 years to figure out how to do it.
Alpert: But, you know, I always wanted to be in the Guinness Book of Records. I’m not fast enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not handsome enough, but I think I’m the world’s slowest filmmaker when I want to tell the story right, and it took me 45 years to figure out how to do it. I’m thrilled that Netflix gave me the opportunity to do it. They’re the only people that said, “Wow! 45 years? Sign us up.”
Tavis: What did it take you 45 years to figure out?
Alpert: I needed to balance a story. I needed to balance, I think, the promise of Cuba. the charisma of Castro with the reality of some of the policies and the way it affected the people, and I needed time to be able to tell, because things change in Cuba.
The thing that’s really astonishing is you see in the middle of the film, especially in the 90s when the bottom falls out of the Cuban economy, it’s literally dark down there. There’s no electricity, there’s no food, to see how the people figured out how to rebound from that.
I mean, it’s astonishing. It’s a testimony to something that’s really — when you went to Cuba, there’s something about their culture. There’s something about the way in which they live their lives. There’s something about their happiness that is infectious and helps them deal with difficult situations. That’s part of this film too.
Tavis: You raised two things I want to go back to. Let me start with this. I’ll come to the resiliency of the Cuban people in just a second. But you went where I wanted to go, which is the culture. What do you find most fascinating about the Cuban culture?
Alpert: The Cuban culture is a culture that has infected the world with their enthusiasm. And you can go anywhere in the world and, you know, that people aren’t dancing to music from Chile and there’s something that Cuba has produced that’s unique in the world. Their food, their culture, their drinks, the way that people react to you. No place like it.
I hope if people haven’t gone to Cuba, that they’ll go and they’ll go before it changes. I mean, everything changes and Cuba right now is a fascinating place. It’s got the remnants of the socialist economy. It’s got — they should just go.
Tavis: What say you then about that other issue, the resiliency of the Cuban people?
Alpert: When you look at our peasants, we follow three men, never got married, basically married to the land. They were my best friends in Cuba. The first time I went to Cuba, I sort of was locked up and told not to leave this place and the guy that was in charge of us never came to get us.
We were told that, if we leave this camp where they had isolated us, that they would just put us on a plane back to New York. You know, I sat there for like a week waiting for this guy to come. You know what he did? He’d basically taken our car and, in those days, nobody had cars, nobody had gas.
And he was using this to visit his girlfriends all over the island because he had a car and he was a big shot. He never came to get us. It was a good lesson because I realized that not everybody in Cuba was a nice guy, that hey had bad, selfish people there just like they had bad, selfish people here in L.A.
And then one day, I just had enough and I started walking down the road and they’re screaming at me. “You can’t go, Juanita! You can’t go! We’re all gonna be in trouble!” I said, “That’s too bad.” And I get to the bottom of the road and I hear a clunk, clunk, clunk. And it’s this little guy lifting stones like this. He’s got these two huge oxen.
You know, I thought I was back in pioneer days in the United States. That’s how we farmed here 200 years ago. And he became my best friend and to watch him and his brothers deal with these unbelievable difficulties, there was a time when people were coming out from the cities.
They had no food and, in the nighttime, they would kill the animals of these brothers. At one point, the brothers were left with nothing. All their animals had been killed. And then to come back five years later and they’ve got more oxen? I mean, I can’t even explain it. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It would have crushed me.
And I don’t have the spirit that these guys had that got them through all these difficulties and got them through it with a laugh. The next time they saw me, they were, “Hey, Juanita!” We’re drinking rum, we’re dancing, we’re arm wrestling. It’s magic.
Tavis: Because you traveled not just extensively in Cuba, but around the world, could you topline what you think Castro’s legacy is around the world? We’ll come back to the U.S. in just a second. What’s his legacy around the world? How is he regarded around the world?
Alpert: It really depends where you are. There’s places that place him like sort of in a holy trinity with Jesus, and the story of the revolution is really romantic. If we took all the people here from the studio, stuck them on a little boat and landed down in — what’s your — Santa Monica, okay — and went up into the Hollywood Hills, that’s what Fidel did and made a revolution out of that.
And he began to really try to employ things that, when I was a young guy, we were dreaming of trying to have here in the United States. So there’s places that still venerate him for his accomplishments, but the Cuban revolution didn’t succeed in many, many areas. So that’s what has really brought about sort of a mixed evaluation and it depends on your own priorities where you rank Fidel.
Tavis: How much of that admiration for him around the globe has to do with his successfully for 50 years thumbing his nose…
Alpert: A lot.
Tavis: At the American empire?
Alpert: A lot.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Alpert: I liked it too, you know, because I would go places where the United States was doing things that it shouldn’t do. Like we supported Marcos in the Philippines, a horrible dictator. And people would ask, “Why are you doing this?” We’d be in…
Tavis: Pinochet in Chile…
Alpert: Pol Pot in Cambodia…
Tavis: All around the world, yeah, yeah.
Alpert: So he didn’t buckle. I think it earned him respect. But on some levels, it also hurt the Cuban revolution because it created a certain inflexibility and defenses always had to be ready so strong that it took away attention from fixing things in the country that needed to be fixed.
Tavis: He was bright.
Alpert: Woo, a lot smarter than me.
Tavis: Yeah. Where did that come from? Because he wasn’t…
Alpert: Well, he was well educated. You know, it’s not in the film, but he was living West 80-something street in New York City one year and was trying to decide whether he was going to go to Columbia to study foreign affairs or go to Harvard Law School and he was smart to get in both of them.
He was leaning to Harvard Law when, all of a sudden, he decided to go back and make the revolution, but he was a smart man.
You know, the peasants were smart in their own way. There was a time when it hadn’t rained for weeks and weeks and weeks and the beans were drying up and the soil was like concrete. I was filming Cristobal and he said, “Listen, you better bring some rain protection tomorrow.” I said, “It hasn’t rained in three weeks, Cristobal. Everything’s dying.” He goes, “Nope, 4:00 tomorrow, it’s gonna rain.”
And none of the weather, whatever the Cuban weatherman was, he wasn’t predicting rain, okay? It was more drought. Like a minute to 4:00, the sky gets black and, you know, it was like a gong at 4:00. So there’s all sorts of wisdom that’s in this documentary and it’s also the wisdom of survival.
Louis, basically, is a street hustler. He’s figured out how to survive. I don’t think he graduated high school, and his job pays him $7 bucks a month, but he’s fixed his house up pretty good and he’s been working the black market. I mean, this is also a documentary about survival.
Tavis: I think you may have just answered it in part, but what do you hope the takeaway is from the documentary?
Alpert: I think, first of all, American people and the Cuban people have been arbitrarily separated for half a century. That’s crazy. And I think, if this could help people understand Cuban people better, understand what’s happened there, start them thinking about the way in which we interact with other people all over the world, I think it’s useful.
You know, there’s so many barriers and walls that get built between us and we got to — I mean, that’s your job maybe with your show to knock that down, and I hope this documentary does its share too.
Tavis: It’s “Cuba and the Cameraman”. It’s on Netflix and limited release as well this month. Great project.
Alpert: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
Tavis: Good to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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