- - Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Imagine watching a proud country decay over decades and still mourning the man who helped make it happen.

“Cuba and the Cameraman,” a morally toxic new documentary on Netflix, captures just such an arc.

Director Jon Alpert spent 40-plus years shooting footage of Cuban families, landscapes and, most important, Fidel Castro. The late Cuban dictator looms large over the documentary in more ways than one.

Mr. Alpert interviewed the communist strongman several times over the years. Their chats are personal, funny and almost always fawning. Castro quips while Cuba burns.

The film opens with the announcement of Castro’s death at the age of 90. Ordinary Cubans march to mourn his passing, but the time frame quickly jumps back to the early 1970s. That was when Mr. Alpert first started visiting Cuba, camera in hand.

Who is Jon Alpert? We learn about his political ideology from clips taken from his early activism. He used his bulky camera equipment to investigate sweatshops and other dubious labor practices. Castro’s ascent caught his eye and imagination.

“We heard that Fidel was implementing the social programs we were fighting for in New York … free health care, universal education, housing for everyone,” the young socialist says.

He wasn’t blind to “el comandante’s” critics. It was one reason he kept coming back to Cuba — to “see the revolution for ourselves.”

What emerges is a clumsy but often sweet portrait of several of the Cuban people, many of whom Mr. Alpert revisits over decades. A trio of farming brothers make the biggest impact. They are simple, hardworking souls who share songs, a love of rum and a strong family bond with the director.

Others are equally cheerful, rarely complaining about their lot in life or the government structure that made it possible. The Cubans captured by Mr. Alpert are kind, open and able to make the best out of some horrifying situations.

We see the latter bloom over time. Castro’s revolution had some early successes, largely thanks to sizable subsidies from the Soviet Union.

“The state-owned stores are all stocked up. The revolution is working,” Mr. Alpert says during a 1970s visit. The nation struggled all the same, which the director partially blames on U.S. policies.

The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 left the nation reeling. Shouldn’t a glorious revolution be able to thrive without someone picking up the tab?

“Cuba and the Cameraman” is at least a half-hour too long. We endure plenty of footage that could have been easily excised, like seeing the director’s child ride a goat and other moments better reserved for home movies.

Blame Mr. Alpert. “Cuba” packs the ego of a Michael Moore documentary with none of the humor or slick production values. Mr. Alpert is a constant presence in the film, which works when he is interacting with Cuban locals.

It’s a different story when he’s interviewing Castro.

Mr. Alpert scored several interviews with the Cuban leader over the decades. Some resulted in revealing footage, as Castro lives up to his reputation for being both cagey and media-savvy.

It’s abundantly clear that Mr. Alpert is a fan, above and beyond him handing Castro American-made beers as a gesture of good will. That stance might be forgivable early in the film. By the end, after he has personally witnessed the starvation and suffering that Cubans endured, it makes far less sense.

And there is suffering. The last third of “Cuba and the Cameraman” is a seemingly endless array of extreme poverty. Bare store shelves. Food rationing. Workers waiting months, if not years, to complete simple construction projects. Homes without water.

A sequence showing the blunt, out-of-date surgical tools used by one doctor is chilling.

How did it all happen? Mr. Alpert isn’t ready to connect the dots. The film is strongest when the visuals tell the story. Had he left it there, the film would serve a valuable purpose. It’s how Mr. Alpert’s camera and commentary resist the reality of Castro’s regime that leaves viewers aghast.

The film’s final moments reveal how Mr. Alpert met Castro one last time before the leader’s death last year. It’s a somber remembrance, as if visiting a beloved uncle on his death bed.

“I don’t know if I’ll see Fidel again,” says the director, noting how Castro signed his shirt during the meeting.

The Cubans featured in the film talk as if reading the same script when it comes to their socialist leader, praising the revolution and Fidel. The country has kept a tight lid on free press over the decades. Even today, internet access isn’t widespread … or affordable.

Mr. Alpert had no such excuses.

Had the director let the visuals tell the story, “Cuba and the Cameraman” might have been a worthwhile, if exasperatingly long, documentary about the collapse of a nation and its proud people.

The director insisted on making the film a cinematic mash note to a dictator who left his country in ruins.

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