Filmmakers' son inspiration for 'Havana Curveball'

by Noma Faingold

Who could fault parents wanting to document their son's bar mitzvah, a significant rite of passage in the Jewish faith and culture. The event, marking and celebrating a 13-year-old's transition from boyhood to manhood, typically consists of a formal ceremony in a synagogue, followed by an often over-the-top party.

When San Francisco documentary filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider started shooting their son, Mica Jarmel-Schneider's bar mitzvah journey, it was a far more ambitious project than something only family and friends would cherish.

The result is, "Havana Curveball," a personal, yet topical documentary (spanning more than three pivotal teenage years of Mica's life), being screened on Aug. 3 at the Castro Theatre during the 34th annual San Francisco International Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 24 - Aug. 10.

For Jarmel and Schneider, award-winning documentary filmmakers who live in the Inner Richmond and have been married since 1995, "Havana Curveball" is their fourth collaboration under their PatchWorks Films company. Jarmel liked how much access she had with her subject (such as capturing her son's first shave), but the project had its own set of challenges.

"Separating my role as parent and my role as filmmaker was hard sometimes," she said. "I still wanted Mica to have his experience."

As Mica, now 18 and a recent graduate of Lowell High School, prepared for his bar mitzvah, he not only had to study a Torah portion to deliver at the service, he was required by his rabbi at Or Shalom to take on a project to help "heal the world," a Jewish principle known as tikkun olam.

Mica combined his love of baseball and his reverence for his grandfather's Holocaust-survivor-past and came up with a project that, at age 12, seemed like it would be simple and satisfying. But Mica was thrown a lot of curveballs along the way, some of them political.

Herbert Schneider and his relationship with his grandson is tenderly featured in the film as Mica asks his grandfather about fleeing Austria with his mother, when Schneider's father was sent to Auschwitz (and subsequently killed). Schneider reveals details of hastily taking a boat to Cuba when he was seven years old. Plans to get to the United States were delayed when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. sealed its borders. Cuba offered refuge to them for a couple of years until the Schneiders were granted visas and moved to New York.

Mica wanted to repay Cuba for sheltering his grandfather and knew about Cuba's love of baseball. He also was aware that there was a great need for baseball equipment, especially for youth baseball. At first, Mica launched a grassroots campaign for donations of baseball equipment and to raise funds to buy more equipment. The plan was to send the gear to Cuba through a non-profit organization called Global Exchange.

Initially, a naïve Mica tried to send the equipment to Cuba through the U.S. Postal Service, unaware of the trade embargo. Later, the family took a road trip to Canada to mail the equipment from there - it took several weeks, but it was eventually delivered.

Mica's parents knew he would encounter obstacles, but decided to let him make such discoveries on his own. It was part of the growing-up process and added dramatic tension to "Havana Curveball."

"We make character-driven films," said Ken Schneider. "This was about Mica's coming of age and learning about Cuba."

The film was also meant to start a dialogue about Cuba, although Schneider insists the film "is not political."

"We don't have a position on Cuba," Ken said. "The film's point of view is to explore the possibilities of engagement through baseball diplomacy."

Well after the bar mitzvah, Mica decided he was not done with the project, wanting to personally deliver more equipment to those in need in Cuba. In the film, which Mica narrates, he says: "I want to see the kids playing baseball and I want to play with them. I want to experience the culture. I want to go to Carnival. I want to eat their food."

The trip to Cuba, with family, film crew and 200 pounds of baseball gear in tow, is where the film really takes off. Despite language barriers, the connections Mica made with his baseball peers, Cubans he met at a synagogue visit and at the Martin Luther King Junior Center, distributors of the donated equipment, were meaningful.

In retrospect, Mica, who is spending part of his summer in Europe before going to Tuffs University in the fall, found his journey rewarding, yet a little unsettling. Seeing how much need there was on and off the field in Cuba was quite a contrast to being raised comfortably in the Inner Richmond, being able to go to Giants games (and seeing baseball at the highest level with players making mega-bucks and playing in glamorous stadiums).

He knows he made a small contribution, but he wonders how much impact he really had. He is also hard pressed to answer how the experience changed him.

"Ask me again in 10 years. I'm still reflecting on it and learning from it," he said. "One thing I learned is being a conscientious citizen of the world might not be simple. It might even be hard, but it's essential to do positive work in the world."

"Havana Curveball" will be screened at the 34th annual San Francisco International Jewish Film Festival on July 31, 12:30 p.m., at Cine Art; Aug. 3, 2:40 p.m., at the Castro Theatre; Aug. 10, 12:15 p.m., Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. Following the Castro screening, there will be a free celebration of youth activism at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St. For more festival information, go to the website at