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This filmmaker followed 45 years of change in Cuban life

In 1972, intrigued by the promises of communism, then-24-year-old Jon Alpert sailed illegally to Cuba. For the next 45 years, the New York City filmmaker made regular trips to the island, documenting post-revolution Cuba through the daily lives of three families. The NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker spoke to Alpert, whose work will appear in the Netflix documentary, “Cuba and the Cameraman.”

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  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Jon Alpert's first trip to Cuba in 1972 was a quick one. Defying the American embargo, he and a friend sailed into the country illegally, where they were briefly detained. Their trip ended hours later, after a rushed, chaperoned drive through Havana by Cuban authorties.

  • JON ALPERT:

    They showed up with these two gorgeous Cadillac convertibles with the big fins and stuff like that. Took us on a three hour trip around Havana and said, 'OK you've seen Cuba, time to go home,' and kicked us out.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    If the Cuban authorities had hoped to diminish Alpert's interest in their country, it didn't work. The 24-year-old New York City filmmaker – intrigued by the Communist Revolution – was only just getting started.

  • JON ALPERT:

    I want free good health care for everybody in the United States. I really want it. I want free good schools for everybody United States and decent housing. I want equal opportunity and they were they were going for it down there in Cuba and so I sure wanted to see for myself.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    For the next forty-five years, Alpert made regular trips to the island just south of Florida, focusing on three families as they grew and struggled along with the Cuban experiment. Now, for the first time, he's assembled his hundreds of hours of footage into a single film, "Cuba and the Cameraman."

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    As you film through the 70s, was there a moment where you said, 'I'm just going to stick with this story before I actually start cutting something, before I start making a film out of this?

  • JON ALPERT:

    Well, I would like to be able to tell you that I was smart enough and perceptive enough and artistic enough to know that this was the film that we were going to be making, but I wasn't. It was in the second decade that I realized that I want to tell the story by following people over a long period of time, because time is a very, very important character in this movie. We meet my friends. We meet Fidel but tick, tick, tick ,tick. The revolution over time and these people's lives over time. Maybe it's the most important element.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But as Alpert shows, their stories, like the story of Cuba, can't escape the realities of the Cold War. Cuba made its way through the U.S. embargo with its dependence on sugar exports and subsidies from the Russians – only to see food shortages and empty shelves after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • JON ALPERT:

    If this film would have stopped in 1977 we'd all be headed down to Cuba right now based on where the revolution was at that particular point. But now the United States says, 'You know, we know how to fix this.' And we dumped our sugar reserves on the open market. We crash the sugar price. That like shot two tires out from the revolution. The Cubans, the way they were managing the country we shot a tire themselves. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, this was a car that wasn't getting any place any more, economically.

  • JON ALPERT:

    Fidel I broke the blockade. I brought you the best beer from the United States.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Interwoven into the film are Alpert's effort to follow the revolution's enigmatic leader, Fidel Castro.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The film shows Alpert's early interactions with Castro in the 1970s and a final meeting just before he died last year.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    How do you describe your feelings for Fidel Castro?

  • JON ALPERT:

    He's in a tippy top group of people, certainly in our lifetimes, who have had an extraordinary impact on the world. They absolutely impacted every single Cuban whether people in their own personal cases feels, for good or for bad.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    While Castro worked to expand access to education and universal medical care in Cuba — he was a dictator who denied his country political freedom, a free press, and jailed his political enemies.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    How do you think about or even reconcile some of the realities of the revolution and some of the realities of the Castro regime?

  • JON ALPERT:

    I'm not trying to reconcile anything. I'm basically trying to help the viewer understand what's been going on in Cuba for the past 50 years. I'm not there to make excuses. I'm not there to misrepresent anything. I'm there to present to you what's been going on in front of my camera, what's happened in the lives of the people and to allow you to to make up your own conclusions.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    45 years of footage captures the long, slow and diminishing promise of the revolution, while his characters offer a window into the resilience of the Cuban people. The young girl who hoped to become a nurse leaves for the United States to work as a janitor. The street hustler spends time in jail for selling items on the black market. The peasant brothers working five years to replace a prized ox stolen during the food shortages of the 1990's.

  • JON ALPERT:

    As much as I love Cuba, I'm also sad, because I would have liked for everything to have succeeded down there, and it didn't.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    And what of that romanticism that first drew you to Cuba and drew you to look at the Revolution the way you have?

  • JON ALPERT:

    So, my naivete was blown out. I realized in my first week in Cuba that not everybody in Cuba is thinking about the other person, not everybody is altruistic that you got selfish SOBs in Cuba, just like you have here in New York City. We all don't have to do great things, but we should all try to do something to make the world a better place than the world we came into. And this looks at that quest over 45 years in Cuba and tries to evaluate the attempts of people to make the world a better place."

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    What change do you see in yourself as you watch these tapes and then as you watch this cohesive narrative?

  • JON ALPERT:

    I wish that I was the young energetic vibrant person that started this film. But nobody lives a life like that. And you hope that you have fought for for whatever you lose over those years; that what's nice about film making is that you haven't really lost it, because we got to put all those little moments in a bottle. And at the end of 45 years, we got a bottle of wine has been aging for 45 years that I get to offer to you. I've been given birth to this film for 45 years, and I'm really happy that it's out. I'm proud of my little baby. Took a long time.

    This transcript has been updated to reflect that Alpert first traveled to Cuba in 1972.

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