The Elian Effect

Sandra Luckow thought the time was right for a documentary about Operation Pedro Pan. Boy was she wrong.

The degree to which the reviewers cited political concerns as a decisive factor in their final judgments is striking. One put a line through the initial recommendation to fund the film on a form and instead wrote that he (or she) “[worried] a bit about [the] political agenda which may lie behind [the project].” The strongest opponent left the evaluation form blank except to write that the proposal “seems inappropriate ... because of its political nature and because of the potential devisiveness [sic] it would certainly bring about.”

The NEH review culminated at precisely the moment that tensions over Elian exploded. It was on March 29 that Alex Penelas made his now-infamous declaration that he would not cooperate with federal officials to return the boy to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Gonzalez then left Havana for Washington, D.C., on April 6. A week later Elian's Miami relatives released a widely shown video of the boy insisting he wanted to remain in the United States. Luckow's rejection letter was dated April 19, three days before the INS raid on the Gonzalez home. In the letter Phelps confirmed that “several reviewers ... worried that [Operation Pedro Pan] would carry with it the onus of a political agenda, especially in light of the ongoing Gonzales [sic] story now so prevalent in the media,”

Luckow's proposal, of course, never mentioned Elian. How could it when it was filed on November 1? But the comparison of Elian to the Pedro Pan children, if somewhat forced, reverberated through the media. And the NEH apparently wanted no part of the debate over Elian. “I don't think they really ever figured out where we stood politically,” says Luckow. “We put forth a proposal that had a humanistic emphasis, not a political one, but after Elian it probably didn't matter.” Producer Geller agrees: “I think Elian made it too hot a subject for the NEH now.”

Not petered out: Filmmaker Sandra Luckow still hopes to complete Operation Pedro Pan
photo courtesy of Sandra Luckow
Not petered out: Filmmaker Sandra Luckow still hopes to complete Operation Pedro Pan

The NEH denies that politics or current events had anything to do with the fate of Operation Pedro Pan. At least it tries to deny it. Phelps says shifts in grading like those suffered by Luckow are “not untypical.” Phelps maintains “the panelists were concerned that [Luckow] would only be telling one side of the story.... The proposal lacked balance.” Problem is Phelps can't quite recall in which direction the proposal might have been slanted. When pressed on the effect the Elian debate might have had on the review, he initially insists the answer is “none,” but then acknowledges that “[NEH reviewers] don't come out of a vacuum. It would be stupid of me to say outside events have no influence.” Well, how much of an influence might they have? “You wouldn't make a film on Hanoi in the middle of the Vietnam crisis,” he concedes.

Phelps defensively asserts that the “[NEH] isn't the cultural ministry in this country. We don't tell people what film they should make.” Then, sounding very much like the minister of culture, he adds that Luckow should resubmit her proposal and work with the NEH so that “we [can] make sure this story doesn't have a particular point of view. Then it would be a wonderful story.”

Sandra Luckow, Lourdes Blanco, and Esther Geller aren't sure what it means to make a film without a point of view. “I'm speechless,” admits Luckow. “The story is about Lourdes Blanco's experiences. I didn't want to do the official history of the Pedro Pan program. I wanted to tell a story about a personal journey and its consequences. Doing it as Lourdes's story is the strength of the piece.”

In the meantime Luckow will go back to fundraising for Operation Pedro Pan and continue work on her other projects. Currently she is developing a weekly television news magazine for children and wrapping up A Five Sisters Production, a documentary about the Burton sisters of Buffalo, New York, who struggled to finance and shoot a screenplay written by their mother. Does Luckow appreciate the irony of making a movie about a group of women who are having a hard time making a movie? “One of the first things I learned in this business is to make movies about things you know,” she laughs. But she has no doubt that she will succeed in bringing Operation Pedro Pan to the screen, with or without NEH support. “There are films you make because they need to be made. This is one of them.”

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