Express, a publication of The Washington Post
June 16, 2008
Silverdocs 2008: 'Holy Land Hardball'
LARRY BARAS HAS two passions: bagels and baseball.
And so the baking businessman from Brookline, Mass., cooked up an unlikely plan for a far-fetched idea to bring America's pastime to Israel. On June 24, 2007, his dream became a reality.
But it was about as easy as building a winning baseball team in Washington.
There were few fans, no ready-made fields and, most importantly, no talent pool to build from.
Baras enlisted the aid of former Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who was able to find the players — who came from myriad backgrounds and had a wide range of motivations to take a swing at joining this start-up professional league.
Documentary filmmakers Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten captured Baras' and Duquette's journey from an initial tryout in Massachusetts to opening day in "Holy Land Hardball," which has its world premiere at Silverdocs 2008 on June 19 at the AFI Silver. (It screens again on June 22.)
The co-directors have crafted a personal story of a broad challenge, capturing the perspective of the Israeli Baseball League's executives and the initial roster of players.
Express recently spoke to the filmmakers, who will be in Silver Spring for the premiere, making their pitch to find wide distribution for "Holy Land Hardball."
» EXPRESS: What was the inspiration for the film?
» RAPKIN: The league started getting some press exposure. There was a New York Times article by Murray Chass. I was reading at the Waverly Diner over breakfast on a Saturday, and I said, "We've got to try to make this."
» EXPRESS: Was the league receptive to having someone follow them? It must be nerve-wracking to put together a league with a camera in your face.
» KESTEN: It was step-by-step process. There was a little testing of the waters with the first tryout. There was no commitment that we would continue to do entire film on it. It was pretty inconspicuous. There were two guys and a camera and 300 people trying out. That worked out. Then there was another tryout and another tryout. Then there interviews with some people at their homes and it kind of steamrolled. That is how trust gets gained.
» EXPRESS: You followed the making of the league for almost a year. How do you keep objective take on what's going on? You must care about the people after spending most of a year together.
» RAPKIN: From the beginning, we set out to an honest story about how this league was put together. We made an effort to remain objective. Personally, I feel like you can become friendly with the people you make a film about. You'll only be as good as much they trust you and want to give you access. You do yourself a disservice if you don't establish a rapport with them. But when you get in the editing room, it is your film to make.
» KESTEN: That's the weird thing. I can't explain why this is. We did become somewhat friendly with lot of these guys. But when they're on screen in the editing room, they stop being your friend; they are just a character now. You keep that in mind your job is to make the best, most compelling film possible. And you just hope there aren't any moments that they're embarrassed by or disagree with. As long as you're honest, I think it will all work out in the end.
» EXPRESS: Along those lines, did you guys have a sense of which players you would follow or did you build the film on the fly?
» RAPKIN: It was a pretty organic process. Filming started with the first tryout. Nate Fish immediately emerged as someone compelling. He had the experience of playing on very high level of college baseball, including being a teammate of Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox. He immediately jumped out as someone who had been pretty close to playing at major league level. Then questions arose about his motivation for wanting to play in Israel. Eric Holtz, we grabbed later, though we got good footage at that first tryout. We got to know him and found him really compelling. The fact he had family but was still willing to spend time in Israel, leave behind a lot of responsibilities, was really riveting. Dan Rootenberg, we started to learn his father had been Israeli, and learned baseball though coaching his son, learning to love it and connect to his son over that.
» KESTEN: Which is really a microcosm of league itself in what they were trying to do in trying to get Israelis interested in baseball. He was a perfect character to include in film.
» EXPRESS: I really liked the Holtz family. It was interesting how comfortable the wife got on camera. You see her go through different emotions; see her being supportive, and other times seem less-than-thrilled about the idea of her husband going to play in Israel.
» KESTEN: We were surprised how open she was. Sometimes, the camera can be a great tool. People may open up. I think a lot had been building up and she wanted to document it in some way. Learned that was their relationship. They give it to each other. I think a lot of people relate. They've been married a while, they get on each other's nerves, but they love each other. They accept each other's dreams. We think the world of that family.
» EXPRESS: Do you think the owner knew what he was doing putting the league together?
» RAPKIN: There was a lot of conversation about doing it last summer or this summer for the first year. Larry felt they needed to put stake in the ground June 24, 2007. They had momentum going and decided it was time to give it a shot. In hindsight, maybe they do things differently. At the end of day, they pulled off the first and last pitch, named a champion, had 120 players from nine countries, got managers who were some of the most prolific Jewish players of all time and pulled off a successful season.
» KESTEN: The question was one of the biggest draws to the story. As exciting an idea as it seemed, it also seemed destined to fail. When you look at the facts, you had a Jewish guy from Boston in the baking industry with no sports experience who decides he's going to be the one to bring professional baseball league to the Middle East. It seemed far-fetched. Pass or fail, it seemed like a great story one way or the other. They didn't seem fully prepared. We wanted to see what would happen.
» EXPRESS: What was your sense how Israelis took to baseball once they got to see it?
» RAPKIN: A lot of Americans live in Israel. For them, it was a miracle it was there. For an American father who moved there for business, and has young children, to be able to take in a pro baseball game, they never imagined it would happen. For non-native-born Israelis, baseball is a game you learn with dad. It's years sitting with your dad and the scorecard, having someone explain what's a ground-rule double, what a sacrifice bunt is. Some Israelis who got to go games, got to experience the family atmosphere. If you look back at inspiration of the league for Larry, from the beginning, it was to bring over that atmosphere. Israeli families could spend evening not worrying about day-to-day challenges and just watch baseball
» EXPRESS: I saw on the Israeli league site that it looks like they will try a second season after all. Are you surprised able to get it going again and do you think it will be long-term success?
» KESTEN: That's a very hard question to answer. We're not privy to everything going on from business sense of the league. It's not easy. Stripping baseball away, it's a start-up business that's taking place 3,000 miles away from everyone's home base. They weren't expecting to take the country by storm; they knew it would be a long process getting Israelis interested.
» RAPKIN: We know they can get players over there from all over the world. The quality of the league went far beyond what Larry originally envisioned. Originally, you would have found a lot of players you saw in the first tryout who were mostly American Jewish kids who would love to spend summer in Israel and had some reasonable baseball skills. When Dan Duquette got involved, it became very much about finding the best players who they could convince to play for $2,000 in Israel for the summer. Having fields to play on is the real challenge. It's about raising money.
» EXPRESS: What was your take on Dan Duquette? He came across as a humbled general manager compared to the perception in Boston back in late '90s when he was a bit of an egocentric.
» RAPKIN: Dan is a huge baseball fan. Played all the way growing up. When he was GM of the Red Sox — that was his dream job. If you look at the 2003 team that won the World Series, he built that team to a large degree but wasn't able to watch them finish the job. This was a great opportunity for him to bring baseball to new country, which he helped to do in Canada [with the Expos].
» KESTEN: As far as Larry was concerned, Dan was a perfect guy to approach. I don't think Larry expected him to accept the position, but he was humbled. Larry probably got him at the right time. He was out of baseball; he'd been turned down for a couple of GM openings. He opened up to us a lot more than we thought he would given what we heard about him. I think he shows vulnerability. He's one of favorite guys to see on screen. He's either saying something funny or poignant.
» EXPRESS: What is the future of movie?
» RAPKIN: We only recently finished and it's been seen by only a few people. We've kept it close to vest. From the few people we've shown it to, we've gotten tremendous feedback. We've gotten a couple of distribution offers. We're looking forward to Silverdocs. We're talk to people there and figure out the best way to get it out there. It should be big success in Jewish community but we hope it can crossover because it's a universal story of a guy with a dream and people saying what crazy idea it is and doing it anyway.
» KESTEN: I was going to add, one thing we're proud of is Israel is featured prominently but it was somewhat apolitical. This represents a part of Israel most people in mainstream don't think about. It's a great place, inspiring place. The league mirrors Israel. Israel's mere existence is an underdog story, which is why it's the perfect setting for this kind of a league.
» AFI Silver, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; Thu., 4 p.m., Sun., 10:15 a.m., $9.75; 301-495-6720. (Silver Spring)