How quickly things have changed in Cuba. After President Obama's declaration of "normalized" relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's documentary Havana Curveball already captures what is, perhaps, a different Cuba. The new policy would have certainly made the mission of 13-year-old Mica Jarmel-Schneider a little easier.
The documentary, directed by Mica's parents, Jarmel and Schneider, the 13-year-old Giants fan and Little Leaguer spends a lot of time figuring out how to donate baseball equipment from his home in San Francisco. As a child, Mica's grandfather escaped Hitler's reach in Vienna and found temporary home in Cuba. Mica felt the need to pay something back to Cuba. Particularly as a huge baseball fan, Mica wanted to reach out to the Communist nation, to build a bridge using a shared love of baseball.
Mica narrates the experience as a 16-year-old. He learns about the U.S.'s sanctions against Cuba. A FedEx employee tells him the policy is "just like Iraq." He reaches out to Pastors For Peace, from whom he learns that importing goods and travelling to Cuba falls into a sort of gray area. But Mica still has much to learn, he visits the island nation himself, accompanied by his father, a photojournalist.
Cultist had a chance to speak with co-director Ken Schneider just after he returned from premiering the film at the Havana Film Festival, when news of Obama's normalizing relations hit the news.
Cultist: Can you explain you split directing and producing with your wife?
Ken Schneider: Marcia is the main producer of PatchWorks Films, so she develops new projects and manages old projects. My day job is as an editor on documentaries, mostly long format stuff. When we successfully fund raise or when we get the affliction, I will stop my other work and Marcia and I will co-produce and co-direct, and in the editing room, I am the main editor, but she, as co-director, is very present.
I have to ask, was this really all your son's idea?
Yeah. The genesis of the project was he was required by his rabbi and his synagogue, a progressive synagogue in San Francisco, to do a bar mitzvah service project called Tikkun olam, or "healing the world," and it originally started by him saying he wanted to deliver baseball and soccer gear to kids in Latin America. We had done some Latin American travelling, and he understood that he had access to more gear than a lot of the kids he saw playing, and we explained to him that's a very big project, and Latin America is a very big place. Then after some family discussion and learning about Grandpa's Cuba story, he lit on Cuba and baseball.
You were in Cuba when Obama announced normalized relations with Cuba, I hear. What was that like?
When the announcements were made it was exhilarating ... there was an immediate reaction. It was not a celebration in the streets kind of reaction. It was not like that, but every Cuban I spoke with and also conversations I overheard in cars. You know, in Cuba you get picked up by those old American cars and there's five or six people in a car, so I would go in those, getting a ride somewhere, and there would already be a conversation going, and in two of these conversations I heard that this was the best hope in their lives for improved relations with their northern neighbor. The end of hostilities with the U.S. holds great promise for them, and that was palpable. It's not necessarily what you read in the editorial pages about now there's the hope that Cuba will look more like us. It wasn't about that. I didn't hear people yearning to revert to Cuba pre-1959, but I did hear people breathing a sigh of relief that finally there's chance for change with their relationship with America, which means a lot to them not only economically but in terms of connecting with family members who moved abroad, in terms of what happens in international forums. Just two months before the announcement, the embargo was voted on at the UN and the vote was 188 to 2 to lift the embargo. Only the U.S. and Israel voted to maintain it.
So will Mica continue his work?
After we returned from Cuba on our last trip, Mica did one more round of collection. He gathered about six or seven boxes of gear on the next year's round of Pastors For Peace. He's now a college freshman, and he's moved on from this particular project. He's doing a lot of other activism. He's involved with the labor coalition in the school, advocating for custodians and kitchen workers on campus. He's also involved himself in solidarity protests around Ferguson and the New York failure to indict. He's been active in those protests as well.
Wow. Well, it comes across in the film: it looks like you raised a really great, impressive young man.
Well, thanks. It's his first year of college, so things are roiling (laughs). Nothing is simple. We don't know where he's gonna land, but he does seem to be involved in social justice.
There's a rather stark scene at the end of the film that resonates with both how daunting this task is for your son but also the decades of oppression that these people have been through. What was that like?
That is the most difficult moment in our filming, and it's the most difficult scene for us to watch because we did not want to be in that situation. Like Mica says earlier, he did not want to hand out gear directly to kids. He did not want to be perceived as the have versus have-not, as the American savior. He didn't see himself that way, but the reality is there is an inequality, and I think that was the moment in the film where he had to consider what is the best way to do positive work. In terms of the sort of Cuba side of the story, obviously that could have happened in Oakland, 10 miles away from my house. It was a moment where Mica had to contend with his privilege and again think about how he can be positive moving forward. You know there are street kids around the world who don't have shoes, so a piece of it was about the Cuban experience, but a piece of it was about the American experience, the experience of being born into America where we have privilege and trying to figure out what our responsibility is around that.
You spent a lot of time there, not just delivering stuff and leaving. How long were you there and how did you decide your itinerary?
I spent about a month there total. That trip was about 10 days ... Mica spent about 10 days there.
You also visited a synagogue and gave there.
We did. So we met the folks at the main synagogue there, Beth Shalom. That's the main synagogue on the island. They're great. They have a very nice building and youth programs. They have a small but active community, and they also came to our screening this last month, at the Havana Film Festival, and they're very interested in me coming back and doing more programs for their entire congregation, but specifically for their youth. So when I return there to do more screenings, I'll definitely be working with the synagogue and hosting some screenings with them.
Some time is spent on why your father did not go. Any new insight of why he did not want to go back?
I think really, as he said in the film, my dad is very patriotic, and the embargo and the travel ban, which has been in effect for most of his life, I think it paints Cuba as a dangerous place, and I think my dad, as he said, would not want to visit a country that his government doesn't want him to, which is the intent of the travel ban. Interesting, when I was a kid, Dad told me around the dinner table that he was grateful to Cuba for having saved his life. At this point of his life, he doesn't think about it, and the irony is that Mica, his grandson, when he heard about his grandfather's story, he really had a much deeper connection to Cuba than even my dad does, and that was the engine that drove is to go there.
And your dad did arrive in a different kind of Cuba too.
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Yeah, Dad was there in the '40s. He was there during the Bautista time. I think, personally, Dad would have loved our trip. He certainly would have had his critiques of Cuba's system. Most Americans who go there do. I had fantasized for many years that Dad would come with me, but I was sad that he didn't.
Havana Curveball screens Tuesday, January 20, at 7:30 P.M. at Temple Beth Sholom, 4144 Chase Avenue, Miami Beach, FL 33140. Director Ken Schneider will be present to discuss the film. Tickets are $13 and $11 for seniors and students. For more information: www.miamijewishfilmfestival.org.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.