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Holy Land Hardball: Interview with the Filmmakers

August 21st, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

Our partners at SnagFilms have extended their SummerFest of films for one extra week on Hulu. For one week only, we’re featuring the online premiere of Holy Land Hardball, the tale of a man with a dream, a dream to bring baseball to Israel. Filmmakers Erik Kesten and Brett Rapkin document the journey of Larry Baras, a “bagel baron” from Massachusetts, as he sets out to get recruit players and kick off the Holy Land’s inaugural baseball game. And, as you might guess, the challenges were plenty: first, Israelis don’t necessarily have an affinity for baseball — they prefer the fast-paced nature of soccer and basketball, for instance. Then Baras had to put together a respectable roster of players. And then what may have been the most challenging aspect: he had to find a place for the teams to play. Hulu recently spoke to Kesten and Rapkin about “Hardball;” the interview follows. – Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: How did you find out about this story and what made you interested in following it on camera?
Well, it starts from a New York Times article, I believe it was around June of 2006. Murray Chass wrote the article, and it showed essentially the group of middle-aged guys who were attempting to start a professional baseball league in Israel. The only problem being that they didn’t have any players, they didn’t have any fields, and they didn’t have any uniforms. They looked like basically just a bunch of guys hoping to start a league. But being Jewish and being baseball fans certainly intrigued us on that level, but if you’re going to start filming something for over a year and promote it for longer than that, you know, it’s got to be something that’s a little bit stronger. For me, personally, it was just sort of the comedic level of the premise. You’ve got a guy who essentially made bagels for a living with no sports management experience, who was basically heading up this dream of baseball in Israel. It always seemed as if they pulled it off, it’d be this tremendous story, but even if they failed, it would still be a tremendous story, but maybe on more of a comedic level. I think the instinct that we both had was that, no matter what the end result was, the journey was just as important and intriguing. We just went ahead, picked up our cameras, and followed them around for a year to see what happened.

You’ve said that this film ends up being less about bringing baseball to Israel and more about following one’s voice. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
I’m always attracted to characters that are outliers, because that’s where I think life gets interesting. This guy, Larry [Baras], despite incredible odds, tried to introduce a sport to a country that really had very little interest in it. It required raising money, a lot of money, millions of dollars. It required just rallying people. It’s almost like trying to make a film. For me, it was a metaphor for trying to make a film, because you have to rally so many people to motivate them between financing and all the resources you need. I immediately felt drawn to Larry in particular and his quest.

How did he end up funding this league? How did he get investors?
Well, Larry put together a really impressive executive board, the most notable name being Dan Duquette, the former Red Sox general manager. He really shook the trees, went out to the community, Jewish or not, and just had this passion and vision. He was able to inspire people who were both sports fans and fans of Israel and liked the idea. One at a time, they started stepping up to the plate, to use a baseball metaphor.

One of the people you feature in the film calls baseball a very Jewish game. What did he mean?
[Laughs]That was the one man’s opinion, and I’m not sure I could replicate that, but what he was saying was that it is a very Jewish game because there are a lot of rules — which is the difficulty the league had in attracting a fan base in Israel. For starters, Israel is, I guess, a little more of an aggressive culture than a lot of baseball fans would be used to. And you can understand why. Basketball and soccer are popular; with baseball, you just have to be patient. You have to know a lot of rules. It’s just a difficult game to pick up unless you’ve been playing it your whole life. In that respect, I guess you could call it a Jewish game.

Rapkin: The quote you’re talking about is this guy who said baseball reminded him of the Talmud. What I think he was suggesting was that baseball is very meditational and has a lot of depth to it. It has layers; it’s something you can study for your entire lifetime, and that’s why I think a lot of intellectuals have been attracted to baseball, because of its textured quality. So I think these guys that have studied different religious texts — whether it’s the Bible, the Talmud or the Bhagavad Gita — there’s a similar quality there.

Kesten: And baseball, as far as American Jews are concerned, certainly in the 40s or 50s and 60s, was an assimilating tool, and I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of people did jump on board in terms of this league and that’s why there was this hope for the league’s success. The league captured a lot of those passions that a lot of American Jews have: baseball and Israel.

What kind of turnout did you see at the tryouts?
A very wide range, first off. The league players ranged in age from 17 to 51. Only about 40 percent of the league was Jewish, which surprises a lot of people. There were a dozen Dominicans, like a dozen Canadians, maybe eight or nine from Australia; there was a guy from Japan, and a couple of other countries were represented. The league was extremely diverse, and that not only went for demographics of the league, but also the level of play, the quality of the talent. When they first started out, they had no idea whether or not that would be the only tryout. So they ended up signing some guys that perhaps would not have made the league or been signed if they had known they’d be going to the Dominican Republic to recruit players, or to Miami, which is a hotbed of young talent. So as the tryouts went on, the talent got better, but there was actually a very wide range. It was very much a ragtag league, really, from top to bottom.

What drew these athletes to try out for the team, especially some of the more talented players who came on board later on?
I think every one of these guys is a dreamer in some way. I mean, to take time out of your life to go to an open tryout for a baseball league that hasn’t even formed yet that’s, like, halfway across the Earth — maybe more than halfway — you’ve got to be somewhat of a dreamer. Every one of these guys had a dream to play professional baseball, whether they were from any of the nine countries that were represented in the league. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the story. I think people assume it was a bunch Jewish guys, or a bunch of Israeli kids. In a lot of ways, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think one of the things we’re most proud of in the story and the way that we told it is the diversity of the ballplayers, especially.

What are some of your favorite moments from filming this?
There’s a lot. I mean, obviously, when you’re making something like this, there’s a whole journey that goes on behind the camera that unfortunately you can’t show. We did get to do a commentary track for the DVD, which has some stories on there.

Kesten: I mean it was all incredibly memorable. I think the second trip to Israel where we stayed in the same sort of dorms as the players were staying was pretty incredible. To arrive with them, be on the ground with them, see their excitement and surprise at the living conditions.

Rapkin: One moment that was really special was when we were in Israel, the lead-up to opening day, a couple of players, main characters in the film, went over to Jerusalem. It was two Jews and two pretty devout Christians who were all interested in the league because Israel is the founding place of their religion. So it was really interesting to see those four players going through the Jewish corridor, the Christian corridor and the Muslim corridor and pointing things out to one another. We have one of the Christian characters, Willis Bumphus, putting on a yarmulke to go to the Wailing Wall. One of the Jewish characters, Dan Rootenberg, wondered where the tomb of Jesus is, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So that was a really special moment, especially because it was actually the first time I had been to Jerusalem. There was a lot going on during that trip.

What’s in store for the film now?
There seems to be an endless flow of festivals requesting to show the film. We are going to be releasing the DVD on September 15. [Available through holylandhardball.com.] We’re working on a TV deal.

And what are you guys working on these days?
Brett and I both have a television background, mainly sports. We’re both looking to branch out a little bit into some other things. I’m actually working on producing a Travel Channel series right now. We’re always looking, keeping our eyes open for new projects.

Rapkin: I’m just getting started on a film for ESPN about Marion Jones, the track star. And I’m writing my first screenplay, which is based on the winter I spent
with the U.S. ski team doing a documentary series with Bode Miller.

Kesten: I am going to be writing a documentary for HBO Sports on the Broad Street Bullies, which is the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team of the 1970s. It’ll be on early next year.

Last comment: Aug 23rd 2009 2 Comments