“Not to sound cliché, but it’s my generation’s job to mop up whatever you guys did to fuck it up,” says teenage Mica Jarmel-Schneider lightheartedly at the beginning of Havana Curveball.
Playing at The Dairy Arts Center on Monday, Feb. 11, Havana Curveball follows the story of Mica as he attempts to donate baseball equipment from San Francisco to Cuba as part of a community service project for his bar mitzvah. Along the way he learns firsthand about the complex relationship between the two countries and how doing good deeds isn’t always simple.
Joining the film at The Dairy will be co-director, and Mica’s mom, Marcia Jarmel. This will be a homecoming for Jarmel, who went to Boulder High and the University of Colorado, where she got a bachelor’s in philosophy and a master’s in journalism. She went on to work for an independent documentary producer and then became a documentary filmmaker herself.
For the past 20 years, Jarmel has worked with husband Ken Schneider — co-director of Havana Curveball — to run their company PatchWorks Films. They’ve covered a variety of topics including feminism, poverty, homelessness, multiculturalism and the world of Orthodox Judaism.
“I’ve always been interested in storytelling that illuminates contemporary social issue landscapes — not so much for advocacy, but creating conversations that aren’t happening about contemporary issues,” Jarmel says. “I don’t just make environmental films or just make health care films. It’s more about where is there a need, and where is there a good story that’s going to bring that issue to life.”
But one topic Jarmel and her husband agreed they’d never cover was their children.
“We always said we weren’t the kind of parents who would make films about their own kids, but in this case we did because the story was happening right under our noses at our dinner table,” she says.
The idea for Havana Curveball initially emerged from Mica’s bar mitzvah, but the whole story starts with Mica’s grandfather. As a child, Herb Schneider was a Holocaust refugee who ended up in Cuba for two years after the U.S. closed its borders following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the film, Herb Schneider talks about growing up in Vienna and the hardships he faced because of his religion. Even as a seventh grader, Mica is clearly touched by his grandfather’s past perils.
“Mica’s a very thoughtful kid, and he’s always been that way — considerate and pondering,” Jarmel says. “He’s always had a strong sense of justice, and you see that in his face when his grandfather tells him about having to wear the yellow star as a young kid. You see how hurt he is by that.”
But what truly sticks with Mica is his grandfather’s description of life in Cuba. As an avid baseball player, Mica is saddened to hear about the conditions kids played in.
“My grandpa told me, when he was living in Cuba, he would see kids playing baseball everywhere, with mitts made of cardboard and balls made of rocks wrapped in paper rags. The bats were just sticks,” Mica says in the film.
With his bar mitzvah coming up, Mica needed to pick a service project and he chose gathering baseball equipment to donate to Cuba. When starting to film Havana Curveball, Jarmel says they thought it would be a short film about kids giving back.
“We’d make a 10 minute film, and we’d be in and out of it,” she says.
But thanks to global politics, it wasn’t that easy. In the film, we see Mica hit multiple obstacles to send packages from the U.S. to Cuba, later heading to Canada to ship the equipment. Months go by, then a year or two, without ever getting notice if the boxes made it to the final destination. Throughout, Mica learns more — in the classroom and out — about America’s embargo on Cuba and its many conditions and consequences.
Eventually, the family packs up their bags, gathers up more equipment and heads to the island to deliver it in person.
Havana Curveball doesn’t just depict the tumultuous relationship between the two countries, but also shows the catch-22 of giving back. Mica wants to help spread resources, but he also wants to avoid the “American savior” role.
“I didn’t want the kids to think that I thought I was any better than them,” he says in the film.
In the end, they donated about 500 pounds of equipment to various groups and teams around Cuba. But, as Mica would learn, that wasn’t enough. In one poignant scene, Mica and his father stop to watch a group of kids playing in the street. It’s then he sees firsthand how desperate kids are for new equipment. Jarmel calls it the toughest moment of the whole film.
“I’ve watched that scene hundreds of times, and I always get my stomach in a knot,” she says. “I think it was in that moment, Mica felt what he had done, even though he felt like he worked so hard, hadn’t really changed anything. But in my mind the truth is more complicated.”
Jarmel knows that kids have mitts, bats and helmets that they didn’t have before.
“But in terms of the larger picture — how much need there is, why don’t these kids have access to that equipment — there still remains a problem. He didn’t fix it,” she says.
The film has so many moving parts that are equally important to the story. The movie ends with several lessons learned — whether that is knowing your heritage or learning about the world firsthand or the importance of giving back. Jarmel says they’ve screened the movie to people of all ages and each person has their own takeaway. The film is not so much a prescription for all or a wagging finger, but more something to reflect on.
“Different audiences take different things away from it. …” she says. “It’s really about encouraging people to think about their place in the world and consider what, if any, responsibility they have and what they have to contribute in that way.”
In the global context, Havana Curveball serendipitously had its Latin America premiere on a significant day in history. It first debuted in America in August 2014, then opened in Havana Dec. 17, 2014, the day President Obama announced his plan to mend relations with Cuba.
It’s a multifaceted issue with different views on either side of the equation. And Jarmel was wary how the screening would be received.
“I wasn’t sure how Cubans were going to respond to a story about a middle class, American, Jewish boy trying to do something good by helping them. It seemed like it could backfire,” Jarmel says. “But people were very responsive and warmhearted and touched by him.”
That positive response led to their next venture. The filmmakers were invited on a bus tour of college campuses on the island. It was for a campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence by helping young people consider what masculinity is without machismo. On the bus, Jarmel says, they built friendships with Cuban musicians, Olympic athletes, prominent academics and artists.
Jarmel and her husband heard Cuban perspectives that are rarely represented. Most of what you hear, she says, is about business opportunities, regime changes or the crisis in migration.
“There’s the assumption that it’s only their government that’s keeping them from flinging the doors wide open and letting American capital pour in. That’s not what we’ve heard. They have a much more nuanced view of what they have; they’re very proud of what they have. They want self-determination. … They don’t want to give up their national value,” she says. “They want more opportunities. It feels like a really important time to create more awareness here, to tell more stories to give a perspective of what it looks like from their point of view.”
This will take place in their next project, (R)evolution Cuba, which they’re currently raising money for. They plan to make several short films telling the stories of Cuba through the lenses of various artists, including a photographer who rarely uses money, a hip-hop artist trying to bring women’s voices to the genre, a world-renowned jazz pianist and more.
A lot has changed since Herb Schneider landed in Cuba during World War II. But the Jarmel-Schneiders continue to shine a light on the country. Nowadays Mica is a sophomore in college, hoping to return to Cuba in his junior year, and Jarmel says the family plans to spend a few months living there in the near future. She’s excited to see what Cuba’s future holds.
“I’m fascinated,” she says, “and hopeful that we’re going to see something new in this evolution.”
On the Bill: Havana Curveball. 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 11, The Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826.