Bar mitzvah project goes the distance in Havana Curveball

Acne, braces and voice changes. The early teen years are not always a time to recall with fondness. But for Mica Jarmel-Schneider, the son of two San Francisco filmmakers, his wonder years will be forever etched into a documentary film.

“I was in my really awkward middle-school stage,” Mica, now 18, says in the living room of his parents’ home in San Francisco’s Richmond District. “I was reaching the height of my self-consciousness when we started the film.”

Baseball on the streets of Cuba

Mica’s parents are Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, veteran filmmakers who decided in 2008 to transform their son’s bar mitzvah project into a short documentary.

“Havana Curveball” ended up being 60 minutes, following Mica from age 12 to 15 as he goes through adolescence and experiences the trials and tribulations of his project: collecting baseball equipment for children in Cuba, and then trying to actually get it to them.

The coming-of-age documentary will make its world premiere in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31 at the CinéArts in Palo Alto. A bigger crowd is expected for the first San Francisco showing, at the Castro Theatre at 2:40 p.m. Aug. 3, followed by an after-party and youth activism showcase at nearby Congreg-ation Sha’ar Zahav.

“Because we are filmmakers we thought this would make a sweet story,” Jarmel says. “At first, the film started out as only five to seven minutes, but it grew with more and more layers as Mica’s project progressed.”

Jarmel and her husband founded the documentary production company Patchwork Films in 1994. In films such as 2000’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (about childbirth practices) and 2009’s award-winning “Speaking in Tongues” (about language immersion programs in the United States), they have explored contemporary social issues.

“Havana Curveball” offered them a slightly different type of project. With practically unlimited access to their son, Jarmel and Schneider were able to shoot scenes that most filmmakers would not be around to capture, such as an unexpected phone call with important news.

“You couldn’t tell his story in real time as it unfolded,” Jarmel explains, “unless you were in the privileged position that we were in.”

Because of his parents’ access to him, Mica admits there were scenes that were too up close and personal. At his request, however, some of those were cut, although one definitely stayed: his first shave. “That was one place in the film where we pulled rank,” Jarmel says. “because we thought it was an important part of the story.”

Mica, who graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco a few months ago and is bound for Tufts University near Boston in the fall, decided in 2008 that he would collect baseball equipment for kids in Cuba for his bar mitzvah community service project with Or Shalom Jewish Community.

He was determined to send over 500 pounds of baseballs, bats, gloves, protective gear and bases.

Mica chose the project for two reasons: He loves baseball and he wanted to honor his family’s personal connection to the baseball-loving nation of Cuba.

Mica’s paternal grandfather escaped Nazi Germany and took refuge in Cuba from 1941 to 1943 prior to immigrating to the United States.

His grandfather, now 80 and living in Southern California, is included in the film in some poignant scenes with Mica, but he opted not to return to Cuba for shooting there.

“[Cuba] was a painful part of my grandfather’s history. He had lost part of his family and left his home,” Mica says. Plus, Mica adds, “he wouldn’t want to go somewhere where the U.S. government didn’t want him to go.”

Crafted from more than 30 hours of footage, “Havana Curveball” includes scenes shot in both San Francisco and in Cuba, where Mica and his parents travelled in 2011 (via Cancun, Mexico).

By film’s end, a 15-year-old Mica is able to see the impact that his project made.

“Sports is something that [I realized] is universal,” he explains. “In Havana, I realized that I didn’t need to speak Spanish to play baseball with the other kids because the rules are the same. Our shared love of the game was a point of connection.”

“Havana Curveball,”
12:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31 at CinéArts in Palo Alto, 2:40 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., 12:15 p.m. Aug. 10 at Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. Filmmakers, Mica and grandfather at Castro screening. Some dialogue in Spanish, with English subtitles (Unrated, 60 minutes)


Related stories

S.F. Jewish film fest brings all corners of world to Bay Area

Docu-thriller probes mind of Palestinian spy for Israel

Heartbreaking, harrowing tale of survival

‘Sturgeon Queens’ hold court in tale of 100-year-old N.Y. deli

S.F. Jewish Film Festival listings