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Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Hock Goes to Cuba Tell a Comeback Story in “The Lost Son of Havana”

Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Hock Goes to Cuba Tell a Comeback Story in "The Lost Son of Havana"

Having premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Jonathan Hock’s documentary, “The Lost Son of Havana,” is being released this month, exclusively on Amazon VOD. Executively produced by the Farrelly Brothers (“There’s Something About Mary”), the film is a portrait of major league baseball legend Luis Tiant, as he returns to his native Cuba for the first time in 46 years.

The Havana sun casts a golden, late afternoon light, lending a brief glow to a narrow street. Decaying houses, with their half‐crumbling facades, somehow cling to their faded glory. The camera pulls back and reveals the silhouette of a man, rounded by age and good living, puffing on a cigar. Nothing about him would make you think that he was once one of the most beloved athletes in his adopted country, America, nor that he is the son of a mythical athlete‐hero of his native country, the island whose soil he is now standing on for the first time in 46 years.

In this moment he is just a man – an old man, he thinks – standing on the final battlefield of the Cold War, at what he feels is the final crossroads of his life. At the age of 67, Luis Tiant has come back to Cuba, the island he had left at age 20 for a trip he thought would last a month and became nearly a half‐century. But is this still home? What is home for an exile that becomes a star in his new land, leaving former teammates to play for their government and country in isolation and povertis home for a man who never had a sister or brother and whose parents are dead? Where can he go to sort out the guilt and the glory? And is it too late? [Synopsis courtesy of the film’s website]

“The Lost Son of Havana”
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Hock
Producer: Kris Meyer
Executive producers: Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly
Director of photography: Alastair Christopher
Music: Robert Miller
Editors: John Walter, Steven Pilgrim
Production: Hock Films, 5-Hole Prods.
Sales agent: CAA
102 min., U.S.

Director Jonathan Hock on how he came into his own as a documentary filmmaker, and how he got around to making “The Lost Son of Havana”…

I began to learn the craft of filmmaking when I worked as an editor, writer, director and shooter for NFL Films. Steve Sabol, who basically created the idea that a sports film should be about people and not games, taught me how to use the most important tool one has as a documentary filmmaker – which is empathy for the subject. Feel the story through the eyes of your subject first, and seek the truth from there. Don’t just come in and dictate the story from what you knew or thought you knew about the subject when you started. That perspective has made all the difference for me.

“The Lost Son of Havana”‘s producer, Kris Meyer (who co-produces the Farrelly Brothers’ Hollywood projects), met Luis Tiant at a dinner in Boston, and he told Kris about his life, and how he wanted to return to his native Cuba after 44 years of exile (it would be 46 years by the time we made it to Cuba). Kris told Luis that it sounded like a movie, and asked if we could bring cameras with him when he goes. “If you can get me into Cuba,” said Luis, “you can do whatever you want!”

Kris asked Bobby and Peter (Farrelly) for support in making the film, and they told him that not only would they support him, they wanted to make the movie with him. Since none of them had ever made a documentary before, they searched for a director. They saw a previous film of mine, “Through the Fire,” and Bobby came down to New York to ask me if I would be interested in going to Havana with them to chronicle Luis Tiant’s return home. I felt like I had won the lottery.

Now we had the issue of story to deal with. What was his return really about? As I learned more about Luis, I discovered that his father had been a great Cuban pitcher who, being black in the 1930’s and 1940’s, was not allowed to pitch in the Major Leagues. To have lived out his father’s dream, while his father was confined to Cuba and not allowed to see him pitch in America, was an issue that Luis needed to make peace with, and that was at the core of the journey. Since Luis Sr had died over 30 years ago, we obviously couldn’t bring him with us. But we did find an amazing photograph of Luis Sr. in uniform, with a lifetime of pain and pride in his eyes. So we brought that photograph with us to Cuba, and Luis carried it with us everywhere we went. That photograph became really the second lead character in the film, and it was the device that enabled us to tell the family story that Luis was living out.

Hock on the major challenge he faced in bringing Luis Tiant’s comeback to the screen…

The biggest challenge was just getting into Cuba legally. The U.S. officials denied our request, as did the Cubans. So, after trying to find a way in for a year and a half, we finally came across an American amateur baseball team with a license to bring 20 players legally into Cuba for a goodwill game against retired Cuban players. The manager was a big fan of Luis, and he gave us six roster spots to get us into Cuba. We had no intention of actually playing. Then the night before our charter from Miami to Havana, we received a phone call from our coordinator in Cuba. The government there was onto us, and told him that they would be at the baseball game, and we had better be playing in that game! So we suited up and played, which was a little embarrassing and a lot of fun. I got a single off the pitcher who won the gold medal game for Cuba in the 1985 World Championships, then pulled both hamstrings running to first base. After that, the authorities left us alone, and for a week we shot wherever and whenever we wanted, though I never stopped worrying that we’d be shut down.

Hock on the films that inspired him, over the course of making this film…

The films that inspired me the most were Rosselini’s early films, “Rome Open City” and “Paisa.” Not that I had pretensions or illusions about the aspirations of my film, but I was inspired by the way Rosselini took you to a place that was just boiling over with war and politics, and managed to address those issues in a humanistic way. The Tiant family story is the story of freedom, and of a people and a nation ruined by war and politics. But for me it’s a human story first, and we wanted the film’s greater truths to be told through personal relationships among people, not political relationships among governments.

And on what’s in store for the future…

I just returned from South Africa, where I shot the jazz legend Hugh Masekela on a journey through the country with his American son Sal Masekela (Hugh spent 31 years in political exile from his homeland himself, so it seems I’m becoming pigeon-holed as the exile go-to guy for producers). But as long as it keeps taking me to fascinating places with amazing people for subjects, I’m in.


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