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‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ Documentary Captures Castro Era, Evolution of Video

Participants in the personal video revolution of the 1970s will be thrilled as they watch the credits roll at the end of Jon Alpert’s documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman,” which debuts on Netflix and in theaters on Nov. 24.

Alpert, the pioneering journalist and filmmaker, has through the years reported from places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, China and Afghanistan and has made films for broadcast networks PBS and HBO.

His latest project for Netflix encapsulates his travels to Cuba over five decades, during which he shot life on the island under Fidel Castro. He used portable technology that was in its infancy when he began and became more sophisticated over the years.

“This documentary is basically a museum of the entire evolution of electronic image-gathering.”
Jon Alpert

“The pot has been boiling for a long time, so to speak,” says Alpert. “We knew we wanted to make this film. I felt that it was an important mission, and we were really lucky that Netflix gave us the resources to not only do the editing but a lot of restoring as well. The early footage had started to deteriorate technically, and we needed to resuscitate it.”

To document Cuba, Alpert used 15 types of cameras and nearly as many editing systems. He began in 1972 with an early Sony half-inch reel-to-reel black-and-white video recorder. Two years later he traveled with a color JVC machine. The following year it was a more advanced Sony U-Matic three-quarter-inch videocassette unit.

As time went by, he progressively used Betacam, Video8, Hi8, DVCam, MiniDV and XAVC, mostly sticking with Sony products.

“This documentary is basically a museum of the entire evolution of electronic image-gathering,” says Alpert.

“When we first went down there with the first generation of black-and-white camcorders, we were placed under boat arrest and were only allowed on shore for about three hours after I nonstop complained and drove the people who were guarding us crazy.”

Alpert knew that to sell his footage he would need to shoot in color, as the networks were starting to reject black and white. On his second trip in 1974 he brought along the first JVC color Portapak in the world. “My wife’s brother had picked it up off the assembly line in Japan and sent it to us,” he says. “It was serial No. 1.”

Subsequently, Alpert used a Sony color Portapak system that was so heavy he carted it around Cuba in a baby carriage. “That’s what attracted Fidel’s attention,” he remembers. “He looked at us like we’d landed from Mars. We were pushing after him with this camera in a baby carriage, and it was his curiosity that led him to come over [to us].”

That was the beginning of a relationship that developed over the next 40 years between the Cuban leader and the documentarian. The Netflix show, which focuses on three Cuban families and their growth and struggles and screened at the Venice Film Festival, provides an intimate look at the country and its people through the eyes of evolving cameras.

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