In the documentary world, timing can be everything.
When 12-year-old Mica Jarmel-Schneider hit on the idea of collecting and sending baseball equipment to Cuban kids his own age, he ran into a logistical roadblock. Because of the U.S. embargo on the island nation, the San Francisco lad had to deal with additional questions and paperwork, and then route his shipment the long way through Canada.
“When we first conceived of this as not merely Mica's project but also a film, it was because of the 50-plus-year-old embargo of Cuba,” says his father, the veteran filmmaker and editor Ken Schneider. “If he initiated the project today, with the lifting of said embargo imminent, we may not have picked up the camera.”
Schneider and Marcia Jarmel’s resulting documentary, Havana Curveball, is compelling precisely because it shows Mica overcoming various obstacles—and encountering uncomfortable realities—to fulfill his admirable deed. Those hurdles (conflict) and the boy’s persistence (character development) elevate the film far beyond a simplistic feel-good story.
On the present-day side of the timeline, the Obama Administration has embarked upon steps to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba at the precise moment that Havana Curveball is crisscrossing the country on the film-festival circuit. You can’t buy that kind of sociopolitical relevance and front-page advertising.
Havana Curveball, which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last summer, screens Sunday, Feb. 8 in the first-ever Hot Stove Movie & Music Festival at the Vogue, and continues its run through Thursday, Feb. 12.
Mica, a hardcore baseball fan, hit on the idea of sending gear to Cuba as his bar mitzvah project. In recent years, many American Jews have recognized that the function of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony as a marker of entry to adulthood has been overshadowed by the party and gifts. Achieving this landmark entails certain obligations, and the emphasis now is for Jewish boys and girls to choose a cause or create a social-issue project.
“We started with this notion that our son’s experience could be a vehicle for all kinds of kids having this conversation with themselves, their families and their communities about what their responsibility was in the world and how they might like to contribute,” Jarmel recalls.
Jarmel and Schneider envisioned a short film they could knock out in three months, but Mica’s endeavors were more arduous and ambitious than anticipated. The film kept growing, and when Mica and his father journeyed with a second shipment of baseball equipment to Cuba, Havana Curveball gained an emotionally rich and resonant third act.
“What Mica experienced on the ground was that this was difficult, it was complicated, it was messy,” Schneider says. “Today he asks himself a different set of questions. More complicated questions. Not just ‘How do I change the world?’ but ‘Is it possible for me to change the world? What are the barriers in my way?’”
Havana Curveball works viscerally on the personal level, but it also connects on a political level, Jarmel observes.
“We've found that lots of folks who don't remember what we call the Cuban Missile Crisis don't know there is an embargo, and don't realize what it’s meant to Cubans and Americans,” Jarmel says. “Or some strongly support U.S. policy and haven't reconsidered their opinions in years. Our little non-polemical story can be a way into a deeper conversation.”
To that end, the filmmakers are actively partnering on the grassroots level with educators, organizations and festivals to screen Havana Curveball everywhere from classrooms to festivals to churches and synagogues. For those eager to see hearts and minds change on Capitol Hill, the filmmakers have not scheduled a screening for members of Congress or the State Department.
“The embargo remains in place, and will continue through the current congressional cycle,” Schneider says. “That said, the easing of travel restrictions will allow more contact between Americans and Cubans, and will inherently change both personal and political engagement between Americans and Cubans. Since Obama eased restrictions on travel and remittances in 2009, hundreds of thousands of Americans have traveled there. Today, tour groups bring Americans to Cuba to dance, attend the Havana Jazz Festival, watch sports, attend the Havana Art Biennial, learn about the history of Cuban Jews, etc. To what extent it changes economic engagement will depend on how our countries behave after the embargo is lifted.”
Schneider recently screened the film to a group of Cuban filmmakers, actors, artists and activists, and has been invited back to tour the island with the film in the spring. He and Jarmel—and Mica—are clearly thrilled at the shifting relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, and normalization is plainly a big deal in this country. But, as Schneider discovered earlier this month at the Sundance Film Festival, which he attended as one of the editors of the new documentary In Football We Trust, we’re still behind the rest of the world.
While pitching Havana Curveball to a Danish television programmer he met at Sundance, Schneider was surprised to hear that she wasn’t interested in the film despite both the historical moment and her network’s regular coverage of stories from around the globe. The rest of the world, remember, withdrew from the embargo of Cuba years ago (the most recent U.N. vote, last October, was 188-2 against). Internationally, it’s a non-issue.
Or to put it in baseball terms, for years the U.S. has been late on the fastball.
For more information about 'Havana Curveball,' see the film's site.