Young Jewish Americans are increasingly using the occasion of their bar or bat mitzvah to shift the focus away from themselves (and a pricey party and a deluge of gifts) and on to a worthy cause. Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s son, Mica, seized on the idea of collecting and sending baseball equipment to Cuba. In the months leading up to his bar mitzvah—a religious rite marking the transition at age 13 from childhood to adulthood—it dawned on his filmmaker mom and dad that the historical and social-issue aspects of Mica’s project could well be of interest to a wider audience than the immediate family.
“We began to realize as parents that a story was unfolding in front of us that was charming in one way and potentially insightful,” Jarmel explained. So in 2008 they began filming Mica doing research, collecting used equipment gathering dust in garages and soliciting cash donations to buy sportswear and gear at thrift stores. “Originally I thought it would be a short and it would end with his bar mitzvah,” Jarmel recalled. “We realized there were all these other layers to the story that made it bigger and deeper and richer. It’s not a Jewish film, but there’s a Jewish undercurrent.”
See, Mica didn’t pick Cuba out of some deep-seated admiration for Fidel and Che. (Although it occurs to me, much too late to be of any “help,” that handing out “Viva la revolucion” T-shirts at the bar mitzvah would have provided a moment of cinematic comic relief.) Mica’s paternal grandfather, fleeing Austria with his family in 1941, was denied entry to the United States. Cuba took them in, for the two years it took to finally gain admittance to the U.S., or else they almost certainly would have been forced to sail back to Nazi-occupied Europe.
Asking themselves a simple question—“If we’re going to make this into a film, what would it look like?”—Schneider and Jarmel (Speaking in Tongues) sat down and storyboarded Got Balz?, sussing out the necessary scenes. They concluded that the climax of the film wasn’t Mica’s bar mitzvah, but an expedition to that small island 90 miles from Florida. So close, yet so far, for the embargo on visiting Cuba is a significant obstacle in the way of the trip they hope to take in March.
“We’ve got about 20 minutes of film cut but the big shoot remains ahead of us,” Schneider said, “and that’s when we travel to Cuba as a family. There are issues due to the embargo; you have to have a license. We as ‘journalists’ can get a license to go. It’s very difficult to travel there with kids.”
Many local filmmakers have visited Cuba, of course, including Eugene Corr for his in-progress baseball doc, From Ghost Town to Havana [which I wrote about here in sf360.org]. I asked Schneider what tips he’d gleaned from their experience.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve filmed in Cuba,” he replied. “Gene applied for licenses to bring a whole group of kids to Cuba and it took an act of providence and many months of applications to get there. Our project doesn’t fit into the categories for which they usually give licenses. We’re guardedly optimistic but there’s no guarantees.”
Given that their son is the subject of the doc, Jarmel and Schneider occasionally have to use their diplomacy skills closer to home. Mica’s on his high school baseball team, and has a full social calendar. “When he engages with the project he’s very motivated and very excited,” Schneider reported, “but on a typical day at 3:00 pm he’s not thinking about it.”
Jarmel confided that the downside of filming an adolescent is that they can’t use a “secret” technique of documentary filmmakers—narration written during the editing process to fill in expository or footage gaps. “We’ve been doing VO [voice-over] interviews all along,” she said, “but we can’t go back and re-record it because Mica’s voice has changed.”
The bigger challenge, since Schneider is editor, co-director, parent and Mica’s baseball coach, is establishing a critical distance from the protagonist of Got Balz?. As Jarmel put it, “The nuance of the film’s relationship to Mica probably needs some vetting.” To that end, they’ll bring in editing consultant (and experimental filmmaker) Nathaniel (Nick) Dorsky, who has provided exceedingly direct and insightful feedback to countless Bay Area doc makers over the years.
Critical distance is hardly a new concept to Jarmel and Schneider, though. “In some ways, this film is a sequel to my first feature documentary, The Return of Sarah’s Daughters,” Jarmel said, referring to the 1997 film about the transition of three secular women into Orthodox Judaism. “It ends with my musing, I just had a baby and what am I going to pass on.” The inspiration for Speaking in Tongues, which touts the advantages of encouraging bilingualism in elementary schools, was the language-immersion school that their own kids attended.
“We always say that our films are autobiographical but they’re not about us,” Schneider said. “They’re about the things we intersect with. We’re looking at issues around family and choices and parenting, not necessarily religion and ethical values, but how we intersect with the broader world not as individuals but as parents and families.”
Sports Basement, a donor of baseball equipment to Mica’s project, is hosting an event for Got Balz? at its 1590 Bryant store Sunday, February 27 from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. A Cuban dance lesson may be offered and the filmmakers will screen their sample reel, among other activities.
(See the trailer at gotbalzfilm.info/.)
Notes from the Underground
Nicole Karsin screens a work-in-progress cut of We Women Warriors Thurs., February 3 at 7:30 pm at the Women’s Building. Visit wewomenwarriors.com for more info. … The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest finally closes Friday, after a 14-week S.F. run. … Screenagers, the 13th Annual Bay Area High School Film and Video Festival, unspools Sat., February 5 at 3:30 p.m. at the PFA in Berkeley.
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