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IFFBoston 2009 – Day Four – Involuntary Travelers with Forbidden: 2 of 3

Geralyn Pezanoski’s Mine begins with a simple premise: What happened to the pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina?

Once you begin there, however, every question answered gives rise to another unanswered.  Where are they displaced to?  Where will they go once they are delivered to safety?  Who will feed them, house them, give them medical care?  Does anyone remember where this pet came from?  Or that one? Can you find the original owners?  Should you? Or are the pets better off in new homes?  Were they abandoned or merely separated in the maelstrom?  Who makes that call as to who is worthy and who is not – who is right and who is wrong?  Were you there in the storm?  Did you see the conditions first hand?  How could you know?

On a deeper level, I also found the pets in this film to be a metaphor for anyone who is voiceless and powerless to control their own life, even if for only a brief time.  The lack of adequate pre-planning for animal rescue has a sibling in the confusion swirling around the crowds in the Superdome.  Understaffed and overwhelmed first responders need to make snap decisions in times of emergency when there is no protocol in place before hand.  So when the rescue chopper arrives to save a man from the flood, is there room for man’s best friend?

Because these pets are clearly blameless victims of a natural disaster, it is easy for their situation to draw empathy from the audience.  Ten minutes in and sniffles are sporadically audible.  By fifteen minutes, tissue use has spread.  But soon after, the crowd is past the initial shock and the searches, tragedies and triumphs unfurl in rapt silence.

What more is there to say about a man living in a FEMA trailer, still without a livable house of his own, who first builds a dog house for his missing pet - simply on faith that, some day, he’ll return?

A simple premise, but a complex story.

Imagine if you had a bad day at work and someone recorded it.  Now imagine that this recording was passed on by hand from person to person until more people knew the “you” in that tape than knew the real you.

Perhaps today with YouTube, ubiquitous social networking technology, and cameras everywhere, even in basic cell phones, that wouldn’t be a surprise.   But back in the day, before the World Wide Web ensnared us all and while the “VHS or Beta?” argument still echoed, when some phones still had dials, some typists fixed mistakes with a tiny white-dipped brush, and some people had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow… well, that kind of thing was unheard of. 

But it happened to someone.  His name is Jack Rebney, but most people know him simply as Winnebago Man.

In the documentary of the same name, filmmaker Ben Steinbauer sets out to first find this “Angriest Man in the World” and then, if he can, find out more about him.  Who is the man behind “Winnebago Man”?

For a man from an era when people expected privacy and this kind of infamy would be a source of embarrassment instead of pride, Jack sees Ben as just another unwelcome intrusion into his life when all he wants is to be left alone.  Yet Jack loves to hold court, and Ben’s camera lets him speak his mind for others to hear him on his own terms.

With the vehicle that the film provides, Jack is offered the journey to see whether people are laughing at him or with him, whether he is the object of ridicule or a cult icon - the buffoon or the anti-hero.  It’s up to him to hop aboard or stay behind, but you’ll probably want to go along for the ride.

The evening’s big draw is the second film in our Forbidden trilogy, spotlighting three documentaries that explore the places that we cannot go.  Tonight’s topic - Cuba: Hear No Evil.

The Saturday night VIP blockbuster of the festival is the New England premiere of Jonathan Hock’s The Lost Son of Havana, which weaves together the threads of the life of Luis Tiant – professional baseball pitcher, Cuban exile, celebrity, family man, Prodigal Son, friend - into a single tapestry.

The opportunity for this film to exist came about because, in 2007, an event had been arranged for an American baseball team to travel to play a friendly contest against a team of Cubans, and Tiant was invited to come along as a coach.  Eventually, arrangements were made for the film crew to be able to tag along, but only if they actually played for the Americans during their visit.  Given this rare access, Hock follows Tiant’s return home and intersperses this modern footage with back story in the life of Tiant, going as far back as the prior generation and Tiant’s father’s life as a talented pitcher, as a dark-skinned Cuban, in the Negro Leagues.

The pivotal event in Tiant’s life as an exile was the summer he began his career as a professional player in the US.  That was also the year that US-Cuban relations fractured over the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Ultimately, all Cuban nationals - including the many Cuban players in the Major Leagues - had to decide whether to return home from the US, or stay away indefinitely.

One unanticipated element of this story was that, unlike so much of the discussion surrounding Cuban-American relations, there was little contentiousness exhibited throughout this documentary.  There was joy upon Luis’ arrival and the reunions with old friends and family.  There was a background of melancholy as all realized that, after waiting 46 years for Tiant to come back to Havana, this might be the final visiting time between Tiant and so many that had been key parts of his life as a boy and a young man.  But there was no vitriol, no lasting spite, no unrelenting anger, whether for the powers that forced separation or the choices that people made.  Because, in the end, the undeniable reality was that there was only a matter of a few very special days to share.

Since Tiant played the most memorable part of his career with the Boston Red Sox, the theater was host to a fair number of public figures from outside the world of film.  These include, in no particular order: Boston Globe sports columnist, ESPN commentator, and arguably the nation’s most respected baseball analyst, Peter Gammons; former Red Sox centerfielder and Tiant teammate, Fred Lynn; US Congressman (D, MA-10) William Delahunt; and former Boston Mayor and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, Ray Flynn. 

Last but not least, Tiant himself, with family and entourage in tow, appeared and was constantly, but respectfully, approached by fans wanting to shake his hand, have their picture taken or program autographed – and to always, always, express their appreciation and thanks. Almost 35 years after the peak of his career in the 1975 World Series, el Tiante is still a beloved figure in Boston.

The nightcap is another selection from the IFFBoston After Dark slate, Grace.  This is a horror film about the power of blind love… and the blind power of zombies.  Including what has to be the most disturbing New Age, water birthing scene ever put on film, this story of a mother’s undying love may move you, but perhaps not in a way that you expect.


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