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

The Elian Effect

“Have you seen the Pedro Pan story in today's Times?” Lourdes Blanco asked Sandra Luckow back in January 1998. Intrigued, the Queens-based filmmaker grabbed a copy of New York's paper of record. What she found was a cold war, cloak-and-dagger story about priests and American government agencies working together in secrecy to bring thousands of Cuban children to the United States in the early Sixties. It was called Operation Pedro Pan (for the boy who could fly) and, while it had long been common knowledge in the Miami exile community, a broader audience was just beginning to learn about it.

The 35-year-old Luckow, whose work has been featured on CBS's 60 Minutes and at the Sundance Film Festival, knew she had the subject of her next documentary. She would follow Blanco, a Pedro Pan kid and fortysomething Latin-American history graduate student at Columbia University, back to the island where she was born. “I wanted to examine the experiences of the Pedro Pan children through the lens of one woman's personal, lifelong journey,” Luckow explains.

After a year and a half of research and preproduction work, Luckow applied to the federally sponsored National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for a $30,000 grant to begin filming Operation Pedro Pan. On November 1, 1999, Luckow submitted the proposal on behalf of her company, Ojeda Films, which takes its title from Luckow's Mexican mother's maiden name.

Call it a fatal case of bad timing: A little more than three weeks later, Elian Gonzalez turned up in Miami. In the wake of the youngster's arrival and the dispute that followed, the NEH shied away from funding Luckow's film, which promised to probe the difficulties faced by Cuban children, who 40 years ago were sent unaccompanied to the United States.

According to the NEH Website, the organization aims to “enrich American cultural life by promoting knowledge of human history, thought, and culture throughout the nation.” In its letters the NEH informs applicants that it funds “those projects that are most likely to combine solid humanities scholarship with ... deep professional expertise.” Politics aren't supposed to figure into the equation.

Luckow's experience reveals three things. First, the controversy that arose around the Cuban six-year-old reached further into government decision-making than many people realized. Second, the NEH, generally considered a careful and impartial judge of intellectual work, is indeed spineless. And third, politics does play a role. The bureaucrats are spending scared.

The NEH, which distributed more than $92 million last year, is the largest source of humanities funding in the United States. Founded in 1965 it (along with the National Endowment for the Arts or NEA) was the cultural arm of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the social welfare piñata that brought us everything from Medicare to Medicaid to government-sponsored student loans. The point of the NEH was to make the humanities an important part of people's lives; to create television programming, museum exhibitions, and films that would expand knowledge and add to public debate. At least that was the idea. The organization came under assault in the mid-Nineties, when conservative members of Congress -- mostly unhappy with the NEA's support of controversial artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe -- threatened to withhold funding from both the NEA and the NEH. That close call may have left its mark on the NEH's decision-making.

Luckow and Operation Pedro Pan, after all, were a natural choice for the NEH. Both Luckow's qualifications and the talent she lined up were impressive. The documentarian holds degrees from New York University and Yale University, where she teaches film production. She has worked with noted writer/director Paul Schrader and counts documentary guru (and NEH darling) Ken Burns among the supporters of Operation Pedro Pan. She assembled a production team that included Esther Geller, a producer with international investment-banking experience; Toby Shimin, an award-winning editor; and Miguel Angel Centeno, a Princeton professor of sociology who had been a Pedro Pan kid.

And the project fit the NEH's pattern of supporting documentaries on immigration, such as Rebuilding the Temple, which is about Cambodian refugees; The Fight in the Fields, about Mexican migrant workers; and One on Every Corner, about Greek-owned coffee shops.

While a discussion of the NEH's review process may appear as exciting as watching pigeon shit bake on your windshield, the official evaluations of Luckow's project reveal a drama behind the scenes. For the record NEH proposals are reviewed by an anonymous panel of academics and professionals. After reading the panelists assign preliminary grades of E (excellent), VG (very good), G (good), M (merit), or P (not recommended). Then they argue among themselves and assign a final mark. Based on those ratings, the grant proposal is approved or rejected. On average one out of every five receives a go-ahead.

At first it seemed Luckow's proposal was well positioned to receive funding. Her preliminary scores consisted of one E, three VG's, one G, two M's, and one P -- meaning that five reviewers recommended her for funding with an average grade of VG. After the group meeting, however, three of the reviewers changed their minds and downgraded the proposal. Even the excellent rating fell two spots to good. “That killed her chances,” says Thomas C. Phelps, the senior program officer who oversaw the review of Luckow's proposal.

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.”

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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