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On Tour: Ghost Town to Havana

11 Sep

On Tour: April 2018 | Ghost Town to Havana| Eugene Corr

Screening #1 – Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA

Located in the small college town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.  The film screens in a beautiful old wooden theater in the oldest and most iconic building on the Bloomsburg University campus, Carver Hall, built in 1867.

All-focus

Carver Hall built in 1887, Bloomsburg University

Randall Presswood, Executive Director of Performing Arts and Programs, briefs me before the screening:  the average audience for On Screen In Person screenings is 35-45 but they’ve had as many as 160. A light snow is falling an hour or so before the screening and Randall tells me that it’s also test week at the University, students are studying.  He warns me that the turn out will be light and it is. A few documentary stalwarts and a recent immigrant from Peru interested in Cuba show up. Perhaps a dozen people, theater staff included. I’m left wondering if it’s the light snow and test week or if our urban movie, set in inner city Oakland and Havana, has much appeal in a small Mid Atlantic college town.

Screening #2 – Montgomery County Community College, Blue Bell, PA

Montgomery County Community College is located in Blue Bell, PA, an upper class enclave about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Blue Bell is the second wealthiest community in the state in per capita income. I meet Brent Woods, Senior Director of Cultural Affairs, and Iain Campbell, Program Coordinator. The espirit de corps and dedication of Brent and staff is immediately evident. Matt Porter who runs the tech side of operations, gives me a tour of the film, tv, and radio facilities at the college.  The facility is top notch; Matt’s enthusiasm contagious.  He brags about the students and the work they’re doing, delighted that the tools provided to the students are top notch.  From mixing rooms, recording rooms, and a college radio station, all in use, I rush off to speak to a film class. The topic: How documentaries impact culture. The professor, Gail Ramsey, loves movies and has attracted and inspired a class full of young movie lovers.  It’s a fun class, the students are engaged and curious. We soon go off topic in a lively free form discussion about the motion picture industry, television, is there a way to make a living in film, and what it’s like to direct “Miami Vice?” The class, like the broader Community College student body, is racially/ethnically diverse and working class, and mostly commutes to the school in the day and returns to homes in less affluent surrounding towns at night. The college is a dynamic lively place in the day. Not so much at night. Our screening is at night.

All-focus

Montgomery CCC interior

I arrive at the theater about half an hour before the 7 pm screening time. It’s a good screening. Almost everyone stays for the Q & A, the audience asks thoughtful questions and are complimentary about the film but seem slightly subdued. Driving away from Blue Bell the next morning I wondered if daytime screenings at Montgomery Community College might be a good idea – a way to bring out a larger and more diverse audience.

Screening #3 – Reading Area Community College, Reading, PA 

Driving to Reading PA, the third of nine stops on Ghost Town to Havana’s Mid Atlantic Arts Tour, I’m starting to get a little worried. What kind of place is Reading, PA and will there be an audience for the film there? Bloomsburg, the lovely small college town, and Blue Bell, PA, the wealthy Pennsylvania suburban enclave, aren’t communities I would expect to find an audience for Ghost Town to Havana, an urban film set in two majority black communities, one in Oakland, California, the other in Centro Habana, Cuba. I’m frankly hoping Reading is urban but the drive west through Pennsylvania woods, interspersed with rolling green hills, does not fill me with optimism. I’ve been in touch via email with Cathleen Stephen, Director of the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading – where the film will screen – and Natalie Babb, Outreach Coordinator; the emails have been encouraging. Cathleen and Natalie have reached out to Baseballtown Charities, a charitable foundation setup by Reading’s minor league team, the Reading Fighting Phils, a farm team for the Philadelphia Phillies. Baseballtown Charities is active in the community, offering opportunities for low income and handicapped youth to participate in organized sports. Baseballtown Charities is partnering with the Miller Center for the Arts to sponsor the screening.

After two mornings of corporate chain hotel buffet breakfasts at the Hyatt House Hotel outside Blue Bell, I wake up at the Candlewood Inn and Suites in Reading, another perfectly decent corporate chain hotel. I venture out in the morning in hopes of finding a real place, a local joint, for coffee. I hit pay dirt just a few blocks away: Benchwarmer’s Coffee and Doughtnuts. (https://www.benchwarmerscoffee.com/).  The owner, Adam Kenderdine, is funny, friendly, with a great sense of humor. A Reading native, he loves his city, is a fount of local knowledge, and about as far from corporate as you can get, a big relief.

For future filmmakers on the Mid Atlantic Tour, places like Benchwarmer’s will be your local small business oasis in the midst of the deadening sameness of corporate chain store/hotel/fast food/Starbuck-ed landscape that America has become. This is the landscape you will be traveling through on the Mid Atlantic Tour. Look for the quirky small businesses and you will find renewal, good company, and good conversation. If you’re lucky enough to find Benchwarmer’s, you’ll find great coffee & doughnuts, too.  What more do you need? The Mid Atlantic Tour turned me into a rabid fan of American small business. Guys like Adam and places like Benchwarmer’s were my life savers.   Regarding lodging, I recommend future filmmakers try Airbnb.  Just before the Tour started, I had a bad experience with Airbnb and decided not to use it on this trip. In hindsight, that was likely a mistake.

Adam’s walls are filled with pics, mostly of Reading people, places, and teams. A lot of history in this doughnut shop; Reading, I can see, was once a booming industrial city. When I look closer at a pic of fans yelling at a ball game, I notice the ball team they’re cheering for is the Reading Fightin’ Phils, whose General Manager and Co-Director of Baseballtown Charities, Scott Hunsicker, will be speaking on the panel tonight.  I leave Benchwarmer’s coffee with a good feeling about tonight.

Scott Hunsicker, general manager of Reading Phillies (photo by Ryan McFadden via the Reading Eagle)

Scott Hunsicker, general manager of Reading Phillies (photo by Ryan McFadden via the Reading Eagle)

 The Miller Center for the Arts, where the film will screen, is a lovely theater just across the historic Schuylkill River from Benchwarmer’s Doughnuts and my hotel. Millions of tons of coal came down the Schuylkill; Reading was once a booming iconic industrial city that’s hit hard times. I see a lot of this on the Tour: once booming industrial cities down on their luck. I come from just such a city on the west coast:  Richmond, CA. Oakland and Richmond, the two primary US locations in Ghost Town to Havana, were booming industrial cities in the 1940s to the early 1970s. Reading feels comfortable and familiar to me.

As baseball coaches and young ballplayers start streaming into the lobby of the Miller Center, it becomes very clear that Cathleen Stephens, Director of the Miller Center for the Arts, and Natalie Babb, Outreach Coordinator, have done an excellent job of community outreach. The Reading youth baseball community is here. There’s a nice buffet and reception, volunteers from the community are helping, the kids are gathering around the buffet table, wolfing chicken tenders, there is a a lovely community feel to it. One Reading team, from an outlying area, is made up mostly white kids, while an inner city Reading team has mostly Latino and black kids. It’s explained to me that Reading, with the highest per capita poverty rate in the country, is like a doughnut, with a prosperous and white outer circle and an impoverished center.

The screening is well-attended. The audience loves the film. It speaks to this audience since it connected with their personal lives here in Reading. Even the younger kids stick it out. The panel Cathleen and Natalie have put together is top notch.

Screening #3_ Coach Leo Martinez and Boys _ Girls Club team

Coach Leo Martinez and Boys & Girls Club team

The panel includes Leo Martinez, from Puerto Rico, Community Outreach Coordinator for Reading’s Olivet Boy’s & Girl’s Club, Olivet Boys & Girls Club RBI League Coordinator, and Scott Hunsicker, General Manager of the Reading Fightin Phils minor league team, youth baseball coach and Vice President and Director of Baseballtown Charities. Tall and athletic and in his forties, Scott is effusive in his praise of the film which directly relates to the work he is doing at Baseballtown Charities. Their mission statement:   “Baseballtown Charities is dedicated to enabling Reading and Berks county children to continue to play ball, regardless of the financial situation in their area.”

Screening #3_ Reading ballplayers

Reading ballplayers

It became clear that Scott and Leo, living and coaching in very different parts of Reading from very different backgrounds, were friends and colleagues. Despite differences in race, class, and income, they work closely together. This says something about both men and also something about Reading. The challenges facing the city have seemed to inspire a loyalty in men like Leo and Scott to the city and each other. Leo doesn’t hesitate to call Scott Hunsicker when he needs funding for baseball gear or league fees. The community feeling between them, the feeling that we’re in this together as a community, is exactly what our country desperately needs right now.

Both men have a deep on-the-ground understanding of the impact of income inequality on organized youth sports in low income cities like Reading across the country. The American “Pay to Play” model of organized youth sports privileges participation of children and youth whose parents can pay and have time to volunteer. In this model, poor black, brown, and white youth simply do not play, unless they are exceptional athletes. The fact that we offer poor and minority youth so few opportunities to participate in youth sports, arts, and music programs, under the guidance of a caring mentor, leaves kids vulnerable to other forms of self-assertion and expression: gangs rather than teams.

Scott and Leo know this. They are both outspoken. Ghost Town to Havana follows the life of a low income inner city coach, Roscoe Bryant, showing how hard it is to hold down two jobs and also volunteer coach while also raising money to pay for gear and uniform for his kids and league fees. Leo doesn’t care how hard it is, his was a take-no-prisoners attitude. The problem isn’t that it’s hard, of course it’s hard, the problem is that men in the community have forgotten how to be men.  I don’t agree with Leo but this is what an exchange of ideas is all about.  I am reminded that Ghost Town to Havana is a great discussion film because it elicits intense reactions and discussions.

Reading was a great screening followed by an intense, often unfiltered and illuminating, Q & A with an engaged audience and panel for whom the issues of the film were not remote and philosophical but directly related to their lives.

Screening #3_ Filmmaker Eugene Corr with Reading players and coaches

Filmmaker Eugene Corr with Reading players and coaches

The next morning I am scheduled by Natalie Babb to have lunch with a Latino group from Reading Area Community College called CONEXIONES, a professional development and support group at Reading Area Community College. We meet at a local eating place, “Mi Casa, Su Casa” that serves “Latin and American comfort food.” I love the place, about as non-corporate as you can get. Another local Reading restaurant with friendly servers and a welcoming atmosphere. I ate the previous night at The Peanut Bar, an “iconic downtown Reading Bar and Restaurant.” I realize I haven’t eaten corporate since I arrived in Reading, a wonderful break from chain restaurant food and the anonymous chain restaurant vibe. CONEXIONES turns out to be a great group. There are 8-10 members at lunch, a lively bunch active in the community in a myriad of ways, and also focused on incorporating Latin American studies into curriculum at RACC.  This community impresses me. I leave Reading on a high.

Screening #4 – Black Rock Center for the Arts, Germantown, Maryland

Germantown, a suburban planned community about an hour outside of Washington DC, is the most completely corporate place I’ve been in in my life.  In my two days there, I don’t see a single small local business. Everything is a corporate chain, each building seems as if it had the same architect and was built on the same day. Whether it’s food you want, or coffee, clothes, a hotel, a hardware store, you go to a corporate chain to get it. I’m traveling alone and like to chat with people I meet on the Tour. The people in Germantown are mostly friendly and likable – but the place creeps me out. It feels to me like a nightmare vision of our future. It’s diversity comes is a surprise to me. Despite its cookie cutter suburban residential and retail sameness, the people of Germantown aren’t cookie cutter at all, at least not in appearance. I don’t know the exact demographic statistics but what I see everywhere is a mix of whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, with many subset ethnic groups within each. It’s like a multi-ethnic version of The Truman Show. The Department of Energy and the Community College are major employers in town and offer some of the best jobs; many others in Germantown commute to government jobs in DC.  For the most part, I interact with the army of friendly, low-paid service workers in the restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops. Only occasionally does their cheerfulness seem forced or obligatory but I can’t help but believe the visible good cheer is often the cover for feelings they are not permitted to show. In fact, low wage workers in these positions have little power and are rarely, if ever, represented by unions. The place and circumstances are soulless; the people aren’t.

The screening is scheduled for what seems to me an odd time: Sunday at 2 pm.  When I arrive at the Black Rock Center for the Arts, I am pleased to see the title of the film emblazoned on the electronic banner outside the Center.  I didn’t know it then, but this was the publicity high point of the Black Rock/Germantown screening. Black Rock positives:  The Black Rock Center for the Arts is housed in an extraordinarily beautiful, dramatic, and well-designed building, by far the most unique structure in town; I liked the projectionist, who did a nice job, always much-appreciated; the young staff that was there on a Sunday, mostly volunteers, were high-spirited and helpful. I got the feeling that the Black Rock Center was their refuge. I didn’t see much evidence of outreach by the host site. An audience of 12 souls, all of whom stayed for the Q & A and asked thoughtful questions, they were vocal in their praise of the film and our discussion. This is gratifying because I was determined to do the best job I possibly could in the Q & A, no matter how small the audience might be. It was heartening that the audience, though small, was so appreciative. To an audience of 12, we sold 3 BluRays/DVDs of the film. I am sure there is a community in Germantown but I didn’t encounter it. After the community high of the Reading screening, Germantown was a hard landing.

Screening #4_ Ghost Town to Havana plays at the BlackRock Center for the Arts

Ghost Town to Havana plays at the BlackRock Center for the Arts

Screening # 5 – Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

Prelude

From my journal – “Roscoe and Althea flew into Baltimore last night, are driving down to DC this morning.” (“Roscoe” is Coach Roscoe Bryant, the main character in Ghost Town to Havana. Althea is his bride of one year. They’ve flown from Oakland, CA on their own dime to attend the DC screening, visit the Washington Nationals Youth Academy, and, they hope, to meet Congresswoman Barbara Lee.  Journal:   “We meet Tommy Goodman, Exec Director of CEBF (“Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation”) for lunch a few blocks from the Washington Nationals ball field. Tommy/CEBF are sponsoring the DC screening and have generously paid for Coach Bryant’s DC hotel room. Easy and fun talking with Tommy about baseball, Cuba, CEBF’s work there, inner city baseball, etc. We talk about possible topics for the panel discussion after the screening tonight. After lunch, we pile into Roscoe’s rental, drive across a river (“is that the Potomac?” asks Roscoe. It is. Something magical about crossing the Potomac) to the Nationals Youth Academy a few miles away to meet with Charlie Sperduto, who runs the baseball program there.”

Charlie gives us the tour of the Youth Academy facility.  I’ve rarely seen Coach Roscoe at a loss for words. He’s blown away.  The facility – 3 ball fields, classrooms, a kitchen, a library – is staffed and run by dedicated and gifted teachers, coaches, trainers: all there free of charge for low income, mostly black, Washington D.C. kids. For Roscoe, seeing this is seeing a longtime dream come true. What he has dreamed of doing one day in Oakland has come to full, beautiful reality… in DC. Charlie shows us the gardens where kids learn to grow their own vegetables, and the kitchen where they learn to cook what they’ve grown– that’s Althea’s dream, to teach health and nutrition to low income kids addicted to cheap sugar drinks and junk food, and now it’s her turn to be blown away. She’s already managed to pull off a nutritional miracle: getting Roscoe to give up McDonald’s junk food. When Roscoe sees the classroom with the windows looking out on one of the three beautiful ball fields, I see his eyes fill with wonder and emotion. Education is the crucial centerpiece of the program at the Washington Nationals Youth Academy and central to Coach Bryant’s vision.  Here’s the link to the Academy website (http://washington.nationals.mlb.com/was/youth-baseball-academy/).  It shows what a program can be. Meeting Charlie and the WNYA staff has been an inspiration for the Coach. He leaves knowing that this is the program that he would like to replicate for inner city Oakland kids someday. Althea says what a difference it would make if every city had a program like this.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Wow, isn’t Major League Baseball wonderful, doing all this for impoverished inner city kids,” let me put this amazing program in Washington, DC in context for you: there are 8 Major League teams with urban youth academy programs for inner city and disadvantaged youth. There are 32 Major League clubs, ie. 24 of them don’t have Urban Youth Academies. Every club should have one. All 32 MLB teams have Academies in Caribbean countries and Puerto Rico. Why not here? This blog is not the place to get into the baseball and financial weeds of that question; but, foregoing the weeds and just looking at it morally, we’d end up with the same conclusion: every Major League Club should have an Urban Baseball Academy in their home city.   

RBI (Restoring Baseball in our Inner Cities), is another MLB program that has the potential to make a major impact but sufferers from severe underfunding.  MLB does a far better job at promoting and publicizing it’s modest efforts in poor communities than it does in creating, funding, and running these programs. A handful of Major League clubs run impactful, independent programs such as the exceptional Junior Giants free youth baseball program that gives 25,000 low income kids in California a chance to play organized youth baseball. These programs can and should be replicated in every Major League city in the country.

But they aren’t.

It’s dramatic and just that Major League Baseball honors Jackie Robinson each year by having every Major League player wear his number 42 on the day Jackie broke baseball’s color line – April 15, 1947. All players wearing number 42 has historic and educational value but in the end it’s a self-congratulatory MLB gesture that does nothing to address the problem: the “pay to play” exclusion of black youth from low income families from participation in organized youth baseball. If Jackie Robinson were alive today he would demand Major League Baseball do more than make symbolic gestures. Give black kids today the opportunity to cross the color line of organized youth baseball the way that Jackie Robinson crossed the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947.

I made Ghost Town to Havana primarily to make the American public aware that our country’s “Pay to Play” model of youth sports is excluding poor youth from participation in organized youth sports. So far, the film has failed to make much of a dent in public awareness of the issue. I’m on the Tour to try different approaches to publicize and promote the film.

The DC Screening

Roscoe, Althea, and I arrive at The Atlas Performing Arts Center for Arts around 6:30 pm. Usually I arrive earlier for the tech check, but because of the visit to the Washington Nationals Youth Academy, we’re running late. This is perhaps our most important screening of the Tour, certainly the most high profile. It’s a great honor that Congresswoman Barbara Lee – Oakland, California’s beloved and respected representative in Congress – has agreed to introduce the film; Congresswoman Lee’s appearance is one of the reasons Coach Bryant flew across the country for the DC screening.  No member of Congress has visited Cuba as often at Congresswoman Lee, nor worked as tirelessly for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba than Congresswoman Lee. She has also championed the cause of low income, inner city residents – especially in her district in Oakland, California where most of Ghost Town to Havana takes place. Congresswoman Lee supported the film early on, even writing to the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department, advocating that OFAC approve our application for a license for Coach Bryant’s team to travel to Cuba to play a Centro Habana team.   We can’t think of anyone more perfect to introduce the film than Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

PIC08 Screening #5_ Panel at DC screening_ Emily Mendrala, Executive Director, Center for Democracy in the Americas, Doug Yeuell, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Executive Director, Miguel

Panel at DC screening: (l-r) Emily Mendrala, Executive Director, Center for Democracy in the Americas, Doug Yeuell, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Executive Director, Miguel Fraga, First Secretary, Cuban Embassy, Tommy Goodman, Executive Director, Caribbean Educational & Baseball Foundation, Filmmaker Eugene Corr, Coach Roscoe Bryant, and Charlie Sperduto, Manager, Baseball Operations for the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy

Doug Yeuell, Executive Director of the Atlas, has put together a superstar panel for after the screening: First Secretary Miguel Fraga of the Cuban Embassy, Emily Mendrala, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Tommy Goodman (Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation).  Coach Roscoe Bryant, an inspirational speaker, and myself round out the panel.  We feel honored to be among such fine company. It seems right that in our nation’s capitol, the focus of the panel discussion will be on Cuba/American relations more than “Pay to Play” issue that dominates the after screening conversation in most other cities.

After 46 years in film and countless screenings, I am rarely nervous before a screening. But I am before this one, which surprises me.  I head immediately to the theater to do the tech check. If the film looks OK, I’ll be OK. But the film, which has looked beautiful in previous Mid Atlantic screenings, doesn’t look good at all. It’s low res, muddy, faces in wide shot are featureless. I say, “This looks like the DVD. You don’t have the BluRay?”  The projectionist, a young woman, says, “It is the DVD, we don’t have a BluRay.” I remember now, The Atlas was the only venue that requested a DVD rather than a BluRay. The projectionist, “We have a BluRay player now though.” I feel a surge of relief, pull two BluRays out of my backpack, hand them over, and begin to calm down.  I’m calm for about 60 seconds. The projectionist can’t get the BluRay image to play; we can hear the movie but can’t see it.We try another BluRay.  Same result.  It’s now close to the 7 pm start time. Someone on the Atlas staff tells me that Congresswoman Lee has arrived. The projectionist, by this time, has tried everything she can think of but can’t get picture to play.  I say, “Okay, let’s go back to the DVD. It doesn’t look great but at least we know it plays okay.” We put the DVD back in. It won’t play either now.  Same problem, sound but no image. I realize the projectionist is doing the best she can, and that I’m not helping by hovering over her and worrying. I hope for the best, leave to greet Congresswoman Barbara Lee and arriving guests. Like computers crashing only when you’re on a big deadline, projection problems happen only at the most important screenings.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is gracious, makes a beautiful introductory speech, in the course of it she mentions that she first heard of the film, Coach Bryant, and the Oakland Royals from her good friend, Ralph Grant. I see Roscoe’s jaw drop. We exchange a look. Ralph Grant, a tall, elegant black man, was Coach Roscoe’s mentor, a man he deeply admired and still tries to emulate.  Mr. Youth Baseball in Oakland, Ralph is one of four remarkable men, now deceased, that we dedicate the film to.

PIC06 Screening #5_ Congresswoman Barbara Lee adresses audience before screening

Congresswoman Barbara Lee adresses audience before screening

Roscoe and I are grateful to Congresswoman Lee for the letter she wrote to the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the U.S. Treasury Department in the early days of the film supporting the Oakland Royals youth baseball team’s trip to Cuba. Half of Ghost Town to Havana is about this trip; a trip that might not have happened without Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s early support. What Coach Roscoe and I didn’t know until hearing Congresswoman Lee speak, is the crucial part Coach Ralph had played by talking up the film, the Oakland Royals, and the Cuba trip to his friend, Barbara Lee. It’s a very emotional moment for Roscoe and for me. Every film is a journey and Congresswoman Lee’s speech completed, for want of better words, a spiritual circle for both us. The film is about the importance of mentor-ship in the lives of youth and the health of a community. Here it was, in Congresswoman Lee’s words, made manifest once again.

PIC07 Screening #5_ Doug Yuell, Eugene Corr, Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Roscoe Bryant & wife Althea Bryant

Doug Yuell, Eugene Corr, Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Roscoe Bryant & wife Althea Bryant

The projectionist has gotten the DVD player working; there is both picture and sound but image quality is still poor. Coach can see I’m not happy, tells me it’s gonna be OK, the way coaches do. One of the things you learn playing baseball or making films or trying to do anything really, is that if you keep thinking about an error you made, you’ll make another, even bigger error.  It’s an unforgiving rule of baseball, life, and film making. I know this rule well, and it’s still hard for me to shake it off and forget it when something goes wrong.

Despite my concerns, the audience loves the film. The panel that follows is amazing. Everyone is excellent; First Secretary Miguel Fraga and Coach Bryant are the stars. Miguel speaks eloquently and humorously of his desire for better relations between Cuba and the United States. Coach Bryant is inspiration. The audience is wonderful. There are a dozen people in the audience who could be on the panel themselves: Jake Wald of Positive Coaching Alliance/DC Chapter, Charlie Sperduto, Chris Henderson, and Kerrick Craig of the Washington Nationals Youth Academy, Mark Hyman (Professor, George Washington University), author of many articles and several books about youth sports, including, “The Most Expensive Game in Town),” and Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports at the African American Museum of Culture and History. It was distinguished audience, nearly filling the small black box theater at the Atlas.

(l-r) Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports, National Museum of African American History and Culture, with Filmmaker Corr, Coach Bryant and wife Althea Bryant

(l-r) Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports, National Museum of African American History and Culture, with Filmmaker Corr, Coach Bryant and wife Althea Bryant

A potentially significant outcome of the DC screening: Cuban First Secretary Miguel Fraga offers his enthusiastic support for our proposal to the Cuban government for a Ghost Town to Havana Tour of six Cuban cities in the Spring of 2019, starting in Havana and ending in Santiago de Cuba. To get U.S. government approval for the Tour, we will likely have to count again on the support of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. We are in ongoing discussions with Tommy Goodman and the Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation about partnering on the Cuba Tour.

It’s a very emotional 36 hours for Coach Roscoe in DC.  After the screening, Curator Damion Thomas invites Coach Bryant and Althea to the African American Museum. Flying out of Baltimore in the afternoon, Roscoe and Althea have only a few hours the next day. Damion gives Roscoe and Althea a personal tour of the Museum in DC. I tag along. It is an amazing, inspiring, humbling experience.And a great honor to be guided through the amazing museum by one of its curators. Coach Roscoe, Althea, and I are deeply honored.  Thank you Damion for the Tour, at turns both harrowing and beautiful.

Washington, DC was a great experience.

Screening #6 – Wayne Theater, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, a historic frontier American town in the 1700s and early 1800s, is today, in many ways, a typical American town, population about 21,000. Typical in the sense that most of the local stores downtown have been shuttered and closed, the small businesses bankrupted by a combination of closing factories and corporate competition: businesses are clustered out by the interstate on the edge of town, virtually all corporate. These clustered exit lane corporate eruptions feel like fast growing tumors on the declining host town, sucking the life out of the real places. My hotel, recommended by the Wayne Theater staff, is the Holiday Inn Express. You curl off Interstate-64 and there it is, 1500 feet away, across the street from a Comfort Inn and a Days Inn and Outback Steakhouse. It begins to grind on you, the sameness of it. By now, I am regretting I ignored Airbnb.

I think of a Mid Atlantic Tour challenge that will improve the experience of the Tour for all future filmmakers: to do the entire 9 city On Screen/In Person Tour, never sleeping or eating in a major corporate chain hotel or restaurant. 

I check-in and head downtown. The Wayne Theater is a lovely old theater downtown , lovingly and beautifully restored. The downtown, with its many shuttered stores, is showing encouraging signs of a come back. You can imagine the lively place it once was when the factories and textile mills were running full bore.

Screening #6_ Wayne Theater, Waynesboro Virginia

Wayne Theater, Waynesboro Virginia

No time to do any real outreach in Waynesboro, but after I call Tracy Straight, Director of the Wayne Theater, and leave a voice mail, I do what I sometimes do when I get into a new town: I call the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club and tell them about the screening that evening. The Boys and Girls Club operator puts me right through to Annie Sachs, Executive Director of the Waynesboro B&GC.   I start to tell her about the screening that evening. Annie interrupts to tell me that Tom Hardiman, Boys & Girls Club board member and active volunteer, already got a call from Tracy Straight and is coming tonight, bringing his collection of Negro League baseball photographs. Thanks to Tracy for reaching out to Tom, who turns out to be a wonderful and engaging addition to the Waynesboro after screening panel. Next I call the YMCA. It’s last minute but I’m put through to Melvin Garrison, Waynesboro YMCA Sports Director, who tells me he hasn’t heard of the screening but will be there tonight.

All-focus

Tom Hardiman collection of Negro League memorabilia

Tracy Straight invites the panel to a pre-screening dinner. She leads us to the downtown restaurant, a nice local place just a couple blocks down from the Wayne Theater. It’s Tracy, me, Tom Hardiman/Boys and Girls Club and Melvin Garrison/YMCA. Tom, a family man in his forties, brings his wife and daughter.   Melvin, in his twenties and new to the Waynesboro job, is bursting with energy and ideas. Tom is white, Melvin is black, both are dedicated to providing opportunities and guidance to low income kids, both love the film, both are practical and idealistic and on fire in the panel discussion after the screening.

I’m delighted to see them, on stage at the Wayne Theater, begin to make plans to work together. This is why I made the film.

Melvin, from a rough neighborhood in DC, and Tom, from a poor and struggling town in West Virginia currently at the center of the Opioid epidemic, have a deep understanding of the affect of our “Pay to Play” system of youth sports on poor communities. Tom says that over 600 youth participate in the local Waynesboro soccer league. The Boys and Girls Club serves about the same number of kids in the identical geographical area, yet when Tom compared rosters, only 6 Boys and Girls Club kids were playing soccer. Why? Primarily, the cost to play. Tom says, “The soccer club offered scholarships for lower income youth, that would cover registration fees. Youth would still need to purchase cleats, shin guards, etc. But the club didn’t want to promote scholarships to the Boys & Girls Club kids for fear that too many would ask for assistance and they couldn’t afford to subsidize that many.”

That, in a nutshell, is what’s going on all across the country.

Filmmaker Corr with panelists Tom Hardiman, Boys and Girls Club _ Melvin Garrison, YMCA

Screening #6_ Filmmaker Corr with panelists Tom Hardiman, Boys and Girls Club _ Melvin Garrison, YMCA

The three of us bonded on stage at the Wayne Theater in the Q & A.  By the end of the evening, Tom and Melvin were my friends. More importantly, Tom and Melvin, who never met before, were friends. They made plans, on stage and afterwards, to work together for the benefit of the kids. The key to the success of these screenings is for the host site to get key community members involved.

Screening #7 –  The Queen Theater, Wilmington, DE

PIC01 Screening #7_ Queen Theater, Wilmington, DE

The Queen Theater is on North Market Street in historic, slightly rundown, downtown Wilmington. My hotel, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Downtown Wilmington – Legal District, and isn’t that a mouthful? – is just a few blocks from the Queen Theater. The DoubleTree is a corporate chain hotel, but it is not set down this time in the usual corporate carcinoma on the outskirts of town. Downtown Wilmington is a real place with lots of small local businesses, including more black-owned barbershops than I’ve ever seen before in such a small area. I counted 7 barbershops in a 4 block area, each one with the distinct personality of it’s owner. Art barbershops, political barbershops, spiritual barbershops. Small businesses project the personality of their proprietor and give soul, life, and individuality to our cities and towns. Every stop on the Tour makes me more of a fan of American small business. By the time I get to Wilmington, I’ve become so devoted I’m ready to join the Rotarians.

I arrive in Wilmington Saturday, April 21, the date of my deceased father’s birthday. It’s a free day. The On Screen/In Person screening is tomorrow, Sunday, at 2 pm. My sometimes difficult relationship with my father, an inner city baseball coach, is part of Ghost Town to Havana. He would have liked this town.  Wilmington reminds me of Richmond, California, the small industrial city on the shores of San Francisco Bay that was my off-and-on home for years. My father was Richmond to the bone and a ball field legend. When I lived with him, which I did sporadically, it was my town too. Throughout World War II over 100,000 workers labored around the clock on the Richmond waterfront, building ships for the war effort.

At the start of the World War II, the entire population of the city was less than 15,000. By the end of the War, it was 150,000. Wilmington, like Richmond CA, has a storied shipbuilding and industrial past.Without really thinking about it, I find myself walking down to the Wilmington waterfront on the Cristina River. I read the historical markers, plates and placards that are everywhere and find out that Wilmington’s heyday and greatest growth spurt was also in wartime.  During the Civil War, Wilmington became a world leader in shipbuilding and gunpowder production. I find a friendly bar and pass a few hours talking to locals, learning more about Wilmington.

The film screens in the afternoon in a large space with floor to ceiling windows on two sides, light streams in from the windows and onto the screen, washing out the image. We turn the screen 30 degrees, away from the light. That markedly improves the picture but does nothing for the hangover I’m nursing.  One filmmakers opinion: films should only be screened at night in this space.

Tina Betz, Executive Director, an elegant, well-spoken black woman, has put together an interesting panel. Audience and staff are diverse and relaxed.  Snacks, drinks, and post screening mingling makes for a relaxed atmosphere for the panel and Q & A. The informal way that Tina configures the discussion, mixing the panel and filmmaker with the audience, makes for an informal, democratic discussion among equals, breaking down the separation between filmmaker/panel and audience. A remarkable discussion ensues. Panelists Ronaldo Tello (psychologist, community organizer, www.delhispano.com) and Gabriela Watson (filmmaker, teacher) are terrific.  Scrawled in my journal:   “high point for me was a young black woman who spoke thoughtfully and eloquently about the film, said that it made her reflect on her struggles with her own hard-edged father and about the stereotypes that divide and reduce us.  As she spoke about her smart, angry, tough black father, a man wounded by poverty and hardship and who she both loved and struggled with, she could have been describing my own father.”

A simple, honest moment and it was for me one of the most powerful personal moments of the tour.  The barrier between filmmaker and audience, between gender and race was– for a few moments at least — erased by shared human experience and connection. I don’t think this moment would have happened if the panel was at the front of the room facing the audience in the formal and usual teacher/student manner typical of post screening Q & As. Thank you, Tina Betz, for arranging the group discussion in such a way as to make this possible.

A side note: as we broke up after the screening and went our separate ways, I remarked to someone how comfortable I felt in Wilmington. I was told not to feel too comfortable because Wilmington is one of the most dangerous cities in the country. I could see some of the warning signs but still liked Wilmington.  Richmond and Oakland are often rated as among the most dangerous cities in the country. For years, Richmond was the “Small City Murder Capital of the United States.” It struck me as ironic that one can feel more comfortable in an unsafe but familiar environment, like Wilmington, than in a safe but unfamiliar one, like Germantown.

Screening #8  – Annenberg Center, Philadelphia, PA

Poster at Annenberg

Poster at Annenberg

The Philadelphia Phillies operate a Major League Baseball Youth Academy in South Philadelphia, where they have built a major indoor/outdoor facility and offer a free baseball and educational program “to more than 8,000 Philadelphia inner city youth in MLB’s Reviving Baseball in our Inner cities (RBI) program.” Brandon Whiting of Philadelphia Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) gives us names, emails, and phone numbers of who to contact at the Phillies Youth Academy.

It is remarkable that of the 8 Major League cities with Urban Academies we are screening in 2 of them: Washington, DC and Philadelphia. The Mid Atlantic On Screen/In Person Tour couldn’t have planned it any better for us. We think of this as a great stroke of good fortune.

We email the contacts at the Phillies Baseball Youth Academy and follow up with phone calls but get no response. We were welcomed with open arms by Charlie Sperduto and the rest of the staff at the Nationals Youth Academy in DC and hoped we might find kindred spirits in Philadelphia, as well. It doesn’t happen. I ask Zach Hile, Outreach and Distribution coordinator for Ghost Town to Havana, to give it a try. Zach strikes out, as well. We never get an email reply or return phone call from the Phillies Academy. Brandon Whiting of PCA tries on our behalf and has no luck himself.

Though we fail to make headway with the Phillies Baseball Youth Academy, we have an ace in the hole in Philadelphia. A week before I am to leave for the Mid Atlantic Tour, I get an email from a Philadelphia man named Steve Bandura.   Steve learned of the Ghost Town to Havana Philadelphia screening from an intern, Tess Speranza, on Caroline Leipf’s staff at The Annenberg Center. Born and raised in a North Philly mostly Irish white working class neighborhood, Steve is founder and head coach of a remarkable Philadelphia Inner City organization/youth ball team, the Philadelphia Anderson Monarchs. The Monarchs are a year-round free athletic program for South Philadelphia inner city youth. Steve sends me several links that give me a sense of the Monarchs, including their website, https://andersonmonarchs.org/ and a Tom Keown/ESPN article:  http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/9717287/travel-leagues-push-urban-baseball-talent

What Steve Bandura and the Monarchs have managed to accomplish in Philadelphia is nothing short of amazing. He casually mentions in a phone call that Mon’e Davis plays on the Monarchs team and will come, along with other key players, to the screening in Philadelphia. Mon’e, the gifted young African-American pitcher who captured the hearts of baseball fans everywhere in the 2016 Little League World Series – and one of very few female players in the Little League World Series – is easily the most famous youth baseball player in the country. When I tell Coach Bryant about Steve Bandura’s program in inner city Philadelphia and that Mon’e Davis plays for him and is coming to the Philly screening, the Coach, a huge Mon’e fan, tries to get two more days off work so he can fly out for the Philly screening. In the end, he can’t swing the time or the money for another flight, but Steve and Roscoe plan to get together via Skype.

As it turns out, Mon’e has a big chemistry test the morning after the screening and can’t attend the screening; but Steve Bandura does, loves the film, and speaks on the panel following the screening to a small audience. He’s terrific.   As I listen to Steve, I become more convinced than ever that his remarkable program is the best model I’ve seen in all my travels with the film of a replicable, sustainable, free, inner city program. Coach Bryant has been searching for years for a successful, sustainable free program that he can model a program on in Oakland. As wonderful and impressive as the Washington Nationals program is, Coach Bryant can’t realistically replicate such a deep-pocketed operation. But he has a puncher’s chance of replicating and adapting Steve’s lean but effective program.

Steve, after years of volunteering, has managed to figure out how to get paid for coaching and supervising the kids full-time. His free program remains independent but he has managed to import it into Philadelphia’s recreation department, where he is on paid staff. For 14 years, Coach Bryant has worked as an unpaid volunteer. It’s not money that motivates dedicated men like Coach Roscoe and Steve Bandura to coach, helping at-risk kids is their calling, their vocation. Ghost Town to Havana shows how difficult it is to be a coach and mentor in the inner city. It asks the question: How do you volunteer coach when you’re already working two jobs and can barely make ends meet? Coach Bryant has managed to keep going because he sees the difference his program has made in the lives of kids he works with. Boys headed for gangs, jail, and sometimes death, end up going to college.

All-focus

Nancy Lee Roane, Moderator, Eugene Corr and Steve Bandura, Anderson Monarchs Youth Baseball, Philadelphia PA

The only negative in Philadelphia was that the audience was so small. Large posters and electronic media promoting the screening and the film were prominently displayed in the spacious lobby of the Annenberg Center, but that publicity and whatever other outreach was done by Annenberg staff, didn’t succeed in getting butts in the seats for Ghost Town to Havana in Philadelphia.  Though I wish we had more of an audience to see the film and to hear Steve Bandura speak, I will always be grateful to Caroline Leipf and her staff at the Annenberg Center for connecting us with Steve. We’ll stay in touch and do our best to get Coach Bryant and Steve together. Who knows, one day we might begin to make a dent nationally. What’s needed is to take programs like Roscoe’s Royals and Steve’s Monarchs and scale them up nationally so that hundreds of thousands of low income kids can have a chance to participate in organized youth sports under the guidance of a caring coach and mentor.

Screening #9 –  Millersville University, Lancaster, PA

Barry Kornhauser, Office of Visual & Performing Arts, is waiting for me in the lobby when I arrive at the Lancaster Hotel.  We exchange a friendly hello, I check in, and Barry hurries off to get his car.  I leave my luggage at the front desk and run out to the parking lot where Barry waits in his car to take me to my first outreach assignment in Lancaster.  Somehow, with Barry, this rushing to and fro is fun, even relaxing, and he will have me jumping for the next 25 hours of my stay in this beautiful city.

Eugene and Barry at the Ware Center

Eugene and Barry at the Ware Center

It’s 10:45 am when we pull out of the Lancaster Hotel parking lot; Barry has me scheduled to speak to an 11 AM class at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, about a 15 minute drive from Lancaster. Barry and I talk en route and by the time we get to the campus, Barry feels like an old friend. The class is “Latino Issues of Identity,” about which I know next to nothing. I am white, 50 years older than most of the students, and wonder what, if anything, I will be able to contribute to this class.

Not sure of where to start, I begin talking about my friend Roberto Chile, the Cuban Director of Photography and Co-Director of Ghost Town to Havana’s Cuba scenes and a gifted visual artist. Called simply “Chile” by friends, his complex Cubano identity, viewed through the eyes of most Americans, would seems wildly contradictory: Chile is a committed Communist, a practicing Catholic, and a believer in the divinity of the African Gods. Almost any American would wonder: How can you be a good Communist, an ideology in which atheism is foundational, and at the same time a Catholic and at the same time believe African Gods are divine? Though incomprehensible to most Americans, in Cuba, this complex, blended identity is not rare or unusual. This gets things going in the class. Many of these young Latino students, from diverse backgrounds and integrating diverse belief systems, are facing complex identity issues themselves; they can understand and relate to Chile’s complex but well-integrated identity.  The time passes very quickly as the class becomes a far ranging exploration of the fundamental human question of identity: Who am I? It’s a wonderful start to my Lancaster visit.

Eugene with MU Humanities class students (Latino Issues of Identity)

Eugene with Millersville University Humanities class students (Latino Issues of Identity)

Barry has put enormous effort into putting together a “Pre-Screening PANEL.” As many screenings as I have been involved in over the years, I can’t remember a panel like this one.  Barry has invited a manager of a Lancaster Barnstormers, a minor league team, the Director of Sports Services in the Lancaster Recreation Department, a Lancaster Police Officer active in the Police Athletic League, an Assistant Professor of Social Work and member of the National Aliance of Social Workers in Sports, an Associate Professor of Wellness and Sports scientist, active in the public health aspect of sport; a youth baseball coach. Each panelist has a distinct point of view and area of expertise.

Barry has sent a link to the film to each of the panel participants. They are required to watch the film as a pre-condition of participation on the panel. I speak after the film but am not on the panel. I wonder: Will people show up 45 minutes before the screening time to hear panelists talk about a film they have not seen? I admit, I am dubious. It’s been hard enough to get an audience to show up at all for some of these screenings, let alone come early for a panel.

I am soon made to realize I have seriously under-estimated the brilliance of Barry Kornhauser’s community outreach. The audience shows up early for the panel; Barry nearly fills the Ware Center in downtown Lancaster– an audience I estimate at around 250. It’s by far the largest and most diverse audience of my nine city Mid Atlantic Tour.

The panelists offer deep and varied view of the joys, challenges, inequalities, successes, and failures of youth sports in America.  The audience, a broad spectrum of the Lancaster community, looks like a Noah’s Arc of humanity. I learn from Barry that Lancaster has the highest per capita number of refugees of any city in America.

When the panel opens up to questions from the audience, a Pakistani man speaks at length to the panel in heavily-accented English. I have difficulty understanding what he’s saying. At the end of a fairly long-winded statement, I can tell he’s making some kind of request, but for what I don’t know.  The panel looks perplexed, as well.  A baseball coach in the audience stands and responds:  “I think I understand your question, and sure, we’d be happy to play croquet with your team, but, uh…you understand we’re a baseball team, right?” “No, no, no!” shouts the Pakistani man. “Play Cricket!  Cricket!”  “Ah, Cricket!” says the American coach, “wonderful!”   The baseball coach says his team would be delighted to play cricket but the Pakistani team would have to teach his team how to play the game. In turn, he says he would teach baseball to the Pakistani team. The Pakistani coach is delighted. “Yes!  Yes!” The audience applauds and laughs.  It’s a sweetly hilarious and good-natured moment that somehow captures the spirit of generosity, good-humor and openness in this remarkable community.

Earlier that afternoon, before the screening, I take a walk around Lancaster, looking at the lovely old colonial era buildings and reading from the many historical plaques and tourist brochures. I learn that Lancaster has a strong tradition of religious diversity and tolerance. It has become a tourist destination, people coming from afar to Lancaster County to see the Amish living their simple 19th century lives, plowing their fields behind horses and traveling rural Lancaster roads in their horse and buggies. The city was an anti-slavery, abolitionist stronghold in the 19th Century.  Thaddeus Stephens, Lancaster’s famed and fierce Radical Republican representative in Congress, fought hard for the abolition of slavery. When the Union north won the Civil War and the slaves were emancipated, he advocated for the confiscation of slaveholders lands and for the land to be redistributed to former slaves. His personal life and his political life seem consistent. He lived with a mulatto woman in Lancaster.

After seeing so many towns and cities on the Mid Atlantic Tour in which community life had been replaced by corporate entities and people in the community turned into units of passive consumption more than free citizens, it was lovely to see in Lancaster that continuities and traditions still exist in American life. The Lancaster tradition of welcoming the stranger, begun in the 18th Century continues into the 21st. I understand more fully now why Lancaster welcomes, per capita, more refugees than any other community in the country.

I claim no deeper knowledge of Lancaster than can be gleaned from tourist brochures, plaques, and Barry Kornhauser, but what I saw at the Ware Center in Lancaster, PA, the evening of April 25, was beautiful. The audience loved the film. Of course, that made me happy. I sold out of every DVD and BluRay I had and could have sold more. That also made me happy.  What made me most happy was seeing a community aspiring to tolerance and equality. Imperfect in its aspirations, of course, but sincerely aspiring. Barry made the panel and screening an exciting community event, pulling together a diverse community, connecting youth organizations to each other. Not only did people come early for the panel, they stayed after the film ended for the Q & A, then stayed longer after that, introducing themselves to each other, welcoming new arrivals, posing for pictures, exchanging phone numbers and business cards. The problem for Barry, it turns out, isn’t getting the audience to come early; it’s getting the audience to leave.

Eugene with players and coaches of Roberto Clemente League

Eugene with players and coaches of Roberto Clemente League

Among those approaching me after the screening is a vivacious, tearful, and smiling Afro Cuban woman I guess to be in her early sixties. Her name is Eulalia (“LALA”) Yaneth. Eulalia lived most of her life in Centro Habana, Cuba, before coming to Lancaster. She tells me in lovely Spanish, speaking slowly enough for me to understand, that Nicolas Reyes (the coach in Centro and a main character in Ghost Town to Havana) is a friend of hers. She and Nicolas lived in the same central Havana neighborhood. She was stunned and thrilled to see her friend in the film and became very emotional, says her dear Lancaster friend, Milzy Carrasco. I am delighted and wonder to myself, what are the odds of this happening? Only in Lancaster. These magical sorts of things seem to happen around Barry Kornhauser events. Barry, a Jew from a tough neighborhood in Newark, has found his true home in Lancaster.

It’s April 26, the morning after the Lancaster screening and my last Mid Atlantic Tour day. The fact that I am flying home to the Bay Area from Philadelphia at 3:30 pm doesn’t stop Barry Kornhauser from scheduling me to speak to a class at 11 am.  It’s been said, “There’s no rest for the wicked.”  To that I would add, “There’s no rest for the wicked…or for anyone working on outreach with Barry Kornhauser.” I have a plane to catch in Philadelphia at 3:50 pm (“allow  2 1/2 hours since you are unfamiliar with the roads”) and it’s 11:25 am when I say goodbye to to Dr. Gordon Nesbit’s Sports Psychology class.

Barry and I hurry to our cars after the class.  I follow Barry to the highway that will take me to the Interstate and Philadelphia. He pulls to the side of the road and gestures for me to turn right at the next intersection. I see him waving goodbye in my rear view mirror. Soon I find myself in beautiful rolling countryside, traveling back in time. A horse and buggy comes towards me on the narrow two lane road, carrying a load of red and yellow flowers. I feel as if I’m in a dream. I pass a man plowing a field behind a horse-drawn plow, three young children sitting at his feet, the girls in 18th Century bonnets. A rise in the road and I see a simple school house and country ball field so impossibly green I think I must be hallucinating. A boy, 11 or 12 years old, in a straw hat and suspenders and brown pants, throws the ball toward home plate. The boys are all dressed the same way and girls in bonnets and long skirts from another century look on. It looks like a team of Tom Sawyers playing baseball. I’ve come across a school lunch break ballgame in Amish country. There is something ineffably joyous and innocent in the tableau. It is a perfect last image for my Mid Atlantic Tour.

– Eugene Corr, Director, Ghost Town to Havana

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On Tour: Big Sonia

1 Apr

On Tour: March 2018 | Big Sonia | Leah Warshawski

BIG SONIA Hits The Road To Make a BIG ImpactIMG_0610

Over the last few years I’ve watched it become harder and harder for filmmakers to bring their films to remote audiences. The trend now seems to be towards an “ala carte” approach for hybrid distribution and niche audiences, and a more grass-roots approach to make sure you can reach the most people and have broad and meaningful impact. The On Screen/In Person tour is one of those rare and unique opportunities for filmmakers that allows you to make lasting contacts and engage with audiences in small communities. It fuels all other avenues of distribution and reminds you over and over how there’s no substitute for showing up in person and shaking someone’s hand. It validates the creative journey and makes you feel like the “rollercoaster” of making a film was worth the ride! The tour is inspiring, exhausting and emotional at the same time. Having done a few film tours in the past on my own I was so grateful that my co-director and husband Todd Soliday was able to meet me halfway through to share some of the driving and participate in a few Q/A’s. This was a memorable and fantastic few weeks on the road and I do believe we were able to spread the #SoniaEffect as much as possible!

***

First stop was Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington DC where Doug and his team gave me a tour of the historic venue and then proceeded to run a first class event. Oddly, 75% of the audience had either met Sonia at some point in their lives or knew members of my family, which was comforting on the first screening of the tour. Councilwoman Heather Hall from Kansas City happened to be in town and came to say hi right before the show started – she is solely responsible for initiating “Big Sonia Day” in KC and it was a joy to celebrate with her in DC.

Next I drove to the Wayne Theater in Waynesboro, VA where Tracy and her team put together a panel after the film and encouraged community members to “pay what you want” to attend. It was a very special evening in a beautiful small-town theater that has become a hub of activity. Our panel included a Rabbi from Charlottesville and a second generation Holocaust survivor and we were able to have an engaging and relevant conversation about how our film relates to current themes and social justice issues. I was honored that Tracy took the time to find panel members who made the entire evening more special.

Off to Wilmington, DE and the home of most of the banks in the US, thanks to banking regulations and taxes. Despite the empty streets on a Sunday, when we walked into The Queen at noon it felt like we were in a nightclub and the techno music was pumping. We were suddenly flanked by two drag queens and learned quickly that it was “Drag Queen Brunch” on the third floor, right below our screening room! It definitely made the day fun, and everyone who came to the screening didn’t seem to mind that we were competing with the brunch. This is emblematic of how these film tours go and why we love them so much – you just never know what will happen when you show up and a Drag Queen Brunch is a first for us!

 Unfortunately our next two screenings at Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and Millersville University of Pennsylvania in Lancaster, PA were cancelled due to the snow storm and we were stuck in Philly for a few days. Ukulele practice and bad reality TV are a great way to wait out the storm. Lancaster scheduled a Skype Q/A for another time so we were still able to show the film.

We felt lucky to be able to try a few farm-to-table restaurants all over the east coast and highly recommend eating at Judy’s in Reading, PA if you’re ever passing through! Reading Area Community College was another impactful screening with a panel that included a history teacher from the college and local community leaders. We talked about why Holocaust history matters now and was inspired to learn that the teacher has a lot of hope for the future based on the engagement of her students. Only 9 states mandate Holocaust education in middle schools and high schools and this was a big topic of our panel discussion as well.

Next stop on the tour was BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, MD where we filled every seat in the room and saw some friends of the project from Kansas City. We met a few second-generation survivors who were grateful that they could relate BIG SONIA to their own lives. This screening happened to be the same day as the March For Our Lives and we talked at length about our current events and the rise in hate-crimes over the last few years. We almost drove to DC in the morning to join the March but we would not have made it back in time – so in a way the screening was our way of doing something positive and making an impact in people’s lives where we can, in our own small way.

On the way to our next event we drove through Amish country on a Sunday amidst horse-and-buggy drivers and women riding bikes home from the market. It’s a side of America that most people don’t get to see and felt like we had landed on another planet. Thanks to our friends at Wild For Salmon, we ate at a delicious farm-to-table restaurant in Bloomsburg, PA before our screening at Bloomsburg University – highly recommend The Blind Pig where all of the food is sourced from local producers. We were a little worried about filling the enormous 1800-seat theater but 15 minutes before the show we had a line out the door or high-school and college students who had come for extra credit! A big part of our audience for the film is 7th graders and above, so we’re always thrilled when students come to the film. It warmed our hearts to see so many people and we hope the teachers will send some of the student’s thoughts or papers.

Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA was our final – and most lively – screening on the tour. It was fitting that this was the last show and Brent and Iain went out of their way to take care of us. Thanks to the local Hadassah chapter we had a full house and a local Holocaust survivor, Rita, joined our panel discussion. Things got lively when people mentioned “Poland” and the current state of politics there, which is a debate we aren’t prepared to have because we have never been to Poland. Thankfully, the Hadassah team is used to these kinds of debates and it’s a testament to the tense climate in our world right now. Brent was so kind and gracious and we certainly hope that our paths cross again in the near future.

 

 

– Leah Warshawski

Director, BIG SONIA

On Tour: Little Stones

1 Mar

On Tour: February 2018 | Little Stones | Sophia Kruz

The first week of February, I set off from my home in sunny Southern California to the wintry hills of western Virginia for the first stop of my On Screen/In Person tour: the Wayne Theater in Waynesboro, VA.

My film, LITTLE STONES follows four women who are using art –music, fashion, painting and dance – to end violence against women globally. Production on the film took me to Rio de Janiero, Calcutta, Berlin, Nairobi, Dakar, New York, Little Rock, and many smaller villages in India, Senegal and Kenya along the way. The film was released for festivals in April 2017, and over the past six months, we’ve done over 70 community screenings of the film – most of which I’ve been present for! So, LITTLE STONES has taken me around the world multiple times over.

That said, before my OSIP tour, I hadn’t had the opportunity to show the film in a small American town like Waynesboro, VA. Before the screening, I was excited, and a little apprehensive. Would audiences relate to the women profiled in the film, and their stories of sex trafficking in India, female genital cutting in Senegal, and extreme poverty in Kenya? The short answer was a resounding YES. And sadly, “me too”.

One member of the audience wrote to me after the Waynesboro screening to tell me:

“I was honored and privileged to view the documentary LITTLE STONES last night. Unfortunately being qualified for the #MeToo movement made the film resonate all the more intensely for me. I admire the courage and the vision of all the people involved in the ongoing process of the Driftseed Organization. What truly struck me was the intense sense of empowerment that these women obtained once their sense of self worth and pride was restored. Never have I been so moved by a documentary.”

 photo 1

I asked this audience member if she would allow me to publish her words on Facebook, and she agreed. Later that day, my non-profit organization Driftseed (www.driftseed.org) received a very generous $5,000 donation – our largest unsolicited individual gift to date – from this same audience member. Her donation will support our ongoing education and impact work around the film.

My fears of LITTLE STONES not resonating with small town American audiences were put to rest after that first stop in Waynesboro.

The next day was a free day, so I stopped by Thomas Jefferson’s estate for a tour on my way to Germantown, MD for a screening at the BlackRock Center. At this, and really all the screenings on my OSIP tour, the theme of the #MeToo Movement kept reappearing. It was interesting to see, in the Q&As after the film, how many people in the audience connected the stories of gender-based violence in the international context we show in the film, with their own experiences here in the United States. It was also heart-wrenching for me to hear, night after night, survivors self-identifying in the audience. I continue to be surprised and grateful that the film fosters the level of trust with viewers that allows a survivor to share their own story publicly – sometimes for the first time. We’re experiencing an interesting moment in women’s rights history in the US, and I hope the conversations started by MeToo, and LITTLE STONES continue on in all the communities I visited. There is so much left to do.

The name LITTLE STONES stems from that idea that we all have a role to play in creating gender equality. It comes from a quote by suffragist Alice Paul who said, “I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone.” When I first read that quote, we were in post-production on the film, and as soon as I read it, I knew it perfectly encapsulated my whole idea behind the documentary. That each of us has a role to play in the fight to end global violence against women. The problem is just too great – too massive – for any one individual to fix on their own. I believe that if we all do our part, piece by piece, stone by stone, we’ll get there.

From Germantown, I went on to events at Montgomery Community College and the Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. At every stop, the organizers were such wonderful hosts, taking me around their campuses, introducing me to faculty and students, and ensuring I was well fed and housed. I’d never been to most of the cities and towns on the OSIP tour, and was at times overwhelmed by the generous hospitality that awaited me at each stop.

After the screening in Bloomsburg, I went home to Los Angeles for about a week of rest and enjoy the sunshine before heading back out for the second half of my OSIP tour. The second half of the tour, my partner Oliver and our dog Misti came along to help out with the merchandise table (Oliver) and give my mother in law, who lives near Philadelphia, lots of kisses (Misti). The second half of the tour kicked off with a screening at the Reading Area Community College. Then, the three of us piled into our rental car to head down to Washington DC for the screening at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

The OSIP Atlas screening was the first of two events I’d be doing in DC with the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Last December, my non-profit Driftseed received a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to bring all four women from the documentary to the US to meet for the first time, and to do a series of events around International Women’s Day, March 8. When we received the grant, I knew we’d want to do a public screening with all the women in Washington DC, and the Atlas Center graciously agreed to be our hosts!

At this first OSIP Atlas Screening, which was part of the Atlas’ Intersections Festival, Nicole Ellis from the Washington Post moderated the Q&A. It was an intimate event, and a welcome opportunity to meet Doug and Heidi from the Atlas in person before our larger events planned at the Atlas on March 11.

At our second screening at the Atlas Center, Sohini Chakraborty from the film came all the way from India to do a dance/movement therapy workshop on the main stage. Chakraborty has developed her own form of dance therapy to heal sex-trafficking survivors in India, and it was really a special treat for US audiences to be able to experience her work first-hand!

After Sohini’s workshop, we showed the film to about 110 people, and then were treated to a special live performance from Sister Fa, who works to end female genital mutilation in Senegal through hip hop music.

photo 5

After Sister Fa’s performance all of the women from the film joined her onstage for a Q&A, followed by a pop-up shop with fashion designer Anna Taylor, whose work to empower women economically in Kenya is also featured in the film. I’m so very grateful to OSIP and the Atlas team for partnering on this special event, and providing such a beautiful space for the centerpiece of our DC residency!

After the OSIP Atlas screening, Oliver, Misti and I made our way to the Queen Theater in Wilmington, DE for a memorable screening and luncheon Q&A. I particularly loved the community members selected for the Wilmington panel discussion, and was grateful so many American Dance Therapy Association members came to this event! After Wilmington, we headed back to Philadelphia for an intimate screening at the Annenberg Center.

My last stop of the tour was perhaps the most memorable – two full days of back to back activities in Lancaster, PA! I arrived in Lancaster early on a Wednesday morning and was whisked off to class at Millersville University with my host, Barry Kornhauser.  Barry is an accomplished playwright and such a wonderful cultural ambassador for his community. I knew right away I was in good hands.

After my first class visit, Barry had set-up an interview with the local TV station. The screening of LITTLE STONES that night at the Ware Center had already been sold out for a week, so this was just an opportunity to give the project more exposure – which is always appreciated!

That evening, the screening at the Ware Center did not disappoint. I loved how Barry organized the expert panel to speak before the film. Often I find when experts join me on the panel after the film, the audience is so excited to ask me questions about the film and filmmaking process, they forget to take advantage of the wonderful experts I’m sharing the stage with! So, I thought the format of having experts view the film in advance, and then each give a 5-minute preview of what they thought audiences should pay attention to during the screening worked really nicely.

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After the film, the audience in Lancaster had many wonderful questions, and I was treated to a long, engaging Q&A. The next day, Barry had organized two more class visits with students at the local colleges before I packed my bags, and headed onto the next LITTLE STONES event after OSIP!

Thank you to everyone from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, and all nine arts non-profits who selected LITTLE STONES, and helped make this tour possible. February 2018 was a month to remember!

– Sophia Kruz

Director/Producer, LITTLE STONES

Co-Founder, Driftseed

Learn more: www.littlestones.org

 

On Tour: Lancaster, PA

2 May

March 30, 2017 | REAL BOY| Lancaster, PA

We couldn’t ask for a more wonderful end to our tour than the events at Millersvillle University and the Ware Center in Lancaster, PA.

The day starts early and our host Barry Kornhauser comes to pick us up in downtown Lancaster and takes us out to the university, which is four miles out of town. The campus is beautiful. There are ducks, swans, and turtles in a large pond at the center and the entire campus is beautifully landscaped. As we walk through campus to the classroom where we’ll be presenting, Barry tells us about the history of the college, including the bit of trivia that an early president of Millersville University from the late 19th Century is best known for writing the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

Our first stop is a lunchtime gathering of students from the social work department. We show the trailer and then gather in a circle to talk about gender identity and the other issues in the film. Joe shares his own personal experiences of coming out as trans and how his family responded at the time.

Dr. Tiffany Wright, chair of the Millersville University President’s Commission on Gender & Sexual Diversity, has joined us and she also shares with students the work being done on campus to create greater inclusion. The school already has a preferred name policy and the commission is working on putting other policies in place to support their trans students and teachers.

I am struck by how important these small, informal conversations are. Students asked for advice for their own lives and took the opportunity to learn more about how to ask respectful questions about gender. They also learned more about how they can become involved as active allies at their university and with their future clients.

We then head across campus to a joint class of undergrads, including those from a Philosophy class entitled “Gender, Utopia and Society.” The room is full and the students ask fantastic questions about both Joe’s experience as a trans man and a musician and my experience as a filmmaker and storyteller seeking to honor and represent people with love and integrity. We talk about gender and media and music and addiction and families.

One student in the back row thanks Joe and I for bringing these stories into popular conversation and shares that she is also trans. Her voice is shaking and she confesses that it’s scary and vulnerable to tell people, especially in such a public way, but that it feels good to be open about it. Everyone in the room claps for her.

We head back into town and start the tech check for the evening’s event. The lobby is already starting to fill with people. When the doors open, the audience starts pouring in. The beautiful Ware Center fills with people. By the time the program starts there are more than 200 people in the theater.

The event begins with a panel discussion featuring Dr. Meg Day, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College; Dr. Tiffany Wright from the Millersville University President’s Commission on Gender & Sexual Diversity; Alexis Lake, a local therapist specializing in LGBT practice, and Tara Stark, a member of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress. They each share their thoughts on the film and the ways it resonates for them personally. They invite the audience to track what is—and isn’t—present in Ben’s story and to look for the nuances. As a director, it is an honor to know that these people have taken the time to watch the film, think deeply about it, and prepare these comments to share with the audience.

The film begins and I can feel the engagement of the audience. They laugh and respond audibly to moments in the film. In the final scene, I can hear the sniffles in the room. I am deeply honored and so happy to be here.

Following the screening, Joe plays a set of music. He’s on fire and people are LOVING it. This night really feels like a special event, the culmination of an amazing month on the road. I’ll soon be on a plane home, but for now, I am so grateful to be in this theater in Lancaster, PA. We have truly done what we set out to do — engage, connect, discuss, and share a story we care so much about.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person filmmaker Shaleece Haas

On Tour: Wilmington, DE

2 May

March 29, 2017 | REAL BOY| Wilmington, DE

The sun is low and warm as we arrive in Wilmington’s arts district, with its old brick buildings, some newly renovated and others in disrepair. We’re staying at a BnB just blocks from the venue, so we are able to walk through the neighborhood to get a sense of the place. Joe walks in front of me, carrying his guitar case, and I’m filled with a moment of deep gratitude that we are able to be part of this tour across the mid-Atlantic — to see so many places, meet so many people, and share our film with them.

Before the screening begins, and as we wait for the sun to drop behind the nearby buildings, Joe performs a few songs. He performs his usual set and then, because the sun has not quite set and the room is still speckled with sunlight, he shares some of his new music, including “Following the Sound”, a song that will be part of the upcoming musical he is writing the music for. The musical is about Albert Cashier, an historical figure who was assigned female at birth and then enrolled in the Civil War as a soldier and lived as male the rest of his life.

After the REAL BOY screening, the event organizers invite the audience to have some pizza and gather at the tables set up in another part of the room. We are joined by the other panelists: Karla Fleshman of the LGBTQ Youth Mentoring Initiative at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Delaware and Cristina Valcarcel Mikijanic, Health and Physical Education teacher at Cab Calloway School of the Arts. The space feels very intimate and informal, which allows us all to have more of a conversation than simply to answer questions from the audience. People share their own experiences as parents, as members of the LGBTQ community, and as allies. Many people have come to this event to find out how they can better serve the trans youth in their lives. They are teachers, health care professionals, friends. I am heartened by their stories and their genuine desire to make a difference. We talk about our own lives, about our own communities, about Albert Cashier, and about the ways we are working to show up to make their communities more gender-inclusive.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person filmmaker Shaleece Haas

On Tour: Brookvale, NY

2 May

March 28, 2017 | REAL BOY| Brookvale, NY

The screening at the Tilles Center on the Long Island University Campus is our northernmost stop on the tour. It has been raining hard all day when we arrive and we’re led into their huge 2,000-seat auditorium, where they host a wide range of events, from large concerts to live theater and touring musicals. The walls of the venue are lined with headshots of famous people who have performed at the Tilles Center — from YoYo Ma to Kristin Chenowith to Kevin Bacon’s musical duo, the Bacon Brothers.

As showtime approaches, the space is mostly empty and we start to worry the rain is keeping people at home, but at the last minute, students from the university begin filing into the theater and by 7:05, a decent-size crowd has settled into their seats.

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The film looks and sounds fantastic and it’s great to see it on the HUGE screen. The students ask great questions during the Q&A following the film and after the official program is over, they flock to the front of the theater to talk and take selfies with Joe and have him sign their CDs.

It’s wonderful to screen the film on college campuses, where so much conversation is underway about gender identity and so many intersecting issues. We’re grateful for how much we learn from young people and look forward to more.

Post provided by On Screen/In Person filmmaker Shaleece Haas

On Tour: Germantown, MD

13 Apr

March 26, 2017 | REAL BOY| Germantown, MD

When I arrived in Germantown, MD, I was welcomed by Krista Bradley, Executive Director, and Jason DeMarchi, Director of Education, at the Black Rock Center for the Arts, a beautiful Arts Center outside Washington DC. The space has three theaters and a wide range of programming that serves the diverse population of Germantown.

The local PFLAG group had adjourned their meeting early to come to the screening and by the time the film started, a sizeable crowd had arrived.

This audience seemed especially moved by the film, as many of them were parents of LGBT youth or were themselves trans or non-binary.

After the screening, I was joined for a Q&A by Sean Lare, a DC-based therapist and gender specialist in private practice, who brought a clinical point of view to our conversation. There were several trans and non-binary teenagers in the audience who asked for advice. One young trans man asked if his body dysphoria would ever go away. My heart went out to them in a big way and I was happy to hear they lived in a community with supportive schools and accepting parents.

I had several great conversations with people after the film, and was grateful to meet a longtime fan of my band, Coyote Grace, who, in his mid-50s, has just begun his transition and was deeply moved by the film and the music.

I left feeling tired, but so grateful to be there.

Post provided by REAL BOY protagonist, Joe Stevens, who joined On Screen/In Person filmmaker Shaleece Haas on tour

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