Thus far, the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival has bestowed upon us, in no particular order, snoozing flesh-eaters (Eddie – The Sleepwalking Cannibal), young lesbians contending with monstrous first love (Jack and Diane), two friends contending against alcoholism and metaphysical horrors (Resolution), and a scholar who’s driven to violent ends over a missing copy of a Charles Dickens novel (Nancy, Please). And those are just a few of the New York City festival’s highlights up until this point, but one project sits above them all in terms of real-life importance.
Baseball in the Time of Cholera, directed by aid workers turned filmmakers David Darg and Bryn Mooser, tackles a crucial, call-to-arms subject in the limited span of 27 minutes, but every second counts. The documentary short follows young Joseph Avyns, a kid living in Port au Prince, Haiti, who loves playing baseball and dreams of making it into the MLB, but there’s one major roadblack standing in between him and those goals: His home turf is being ravaged by the disease known as cholera, a deadly ailment that has already claimed the lives of over 7,000 Haitian victims. Concurrently, a lawyer named Mario Joseph is working hard to make the United States take responsibility for allowing the disease to enter Haiti via unsanitary Nepalese soldiers, and, by the film’s end, the worlds of Joseph and Mario intersect in the wake of heartbreaking tragedy.
Riding alongside Darg and Mooser on their mission to raise worldwide awareness about this devastating issue is executive producer Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens), the prolific Hollywood scene-stealer who’s been actively contributing aid to Haiti’s less fortunate since 2009. Together, the three filmmakers hope that Baseball in the Time of Cholera (which will begin a limited theatrical run in Los Angeles on May 4th, at the Laemmle’s NoHo 7 theater) reaches as broad an audience as possible with its theme of America’s pastime giving youngsters like Joseph fuel for optimism amidst cholera’s overwhelming impact.
Complex had a chance to sit down with Wilde, Darg, and Mooser over the weekend to discuss Baseball in the Time of Choleraand the magnitude of its messages.
What really struck me about Baseball in the Time of Cholera was just how much of myself at that young age I saw in Joseph and his love for baseball; by putting such a relatable face to this bigger issue of what’s going on in Haiti, it really put things into perspective. Was that your intention?
Bryn Mooser: I’m so glad you felt that, because as filmmakers we wanted to capture that. I think that so many times there are these big numbers thrown out: 500,000 people have been sickened by Cholera, which is 5% of the population of Haiti, and 7,030 people have died of cholera in Haiti. And these numbers don’t really mean anything until you really start to, like you did, have a connection with Joseph.
So, for us, we all met Joseph almost two years ago, and he’s been like a little brother to all of us. We were there every step of the way, from getting to know his mother really well to going to Toronto when he got to throw out the first pitch at the Blue Jays game, and then to dealing with the death of his mother, helping the family arrange from a coffin to finding a place to bury her. So that affected us; we’ve been dealing with cholera for the last year-and-a-half, and it wasn’t until our little brother lost his mom, and seeing the pain—and us having that loss, as well, which was small compared to his loss-that it really became a call-to-action.
So I’m glad you felt that, because he’s a special kid—he’s a special kid for us, and this film is really about making sure that his story isn’t lost.
Were you guys working on the film already when you’d met him, or did meeting completely inspire you to make it?
David Darg: We pretty much started that little league baseball team ourselves, and we’d started to document the evolution of the team—they’re street children from Port au Prince. In and of itself, that’s a good story about how these kids are learning social skills and learning how to get along with each other through baseball, so we’d documented that throughout the course of a year, almost. In parallel, Bryn and I are full-time aid workers, so we had been in and amongst cholera, and documenting that on behalf of our organizations.
So we had all of this incredible footage of cholera outbreak, and all of this footage of the baseball team. Then, when Joseph’s mom died, it hit us so hard that we realized we had to shift the focus of the film to tell the bigger story, the more important story of cholera in Haiti. We were fortunate that we had all the footage of cholera outbreak and of the little league team, so that was how we were able to blend it all together.
Olivia, how’d you get involved with the film?
Olivia Wilde: I knew that these guys were trying to make a film about the baseball team that they’d put together, so right when the little league project was born, I said, “Whatever you guys do with this, I want to be a part of it.” As a producer, you just want to attach yourself to filmmakers who are doing interesting, valuable, and important work. We made a film together last year, called Sun City Picture House, and I really enjoyed the process of getting the word out on that film; this film is different and equally beautiful, so I came on as a producer and I was thrilled to see that this film is a call-to-action.
It’s much more than just a story—it’s really a movement. It really should inspire people to get together and put pressure on the U.N., and I think that as a producer the most important thing you can do is get the filmmakers whatever it is they need to tell the story. That’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do it twice with these guys, now.
With all of the footage you must have captured, what made you want to stick with the short-form documentary approach, rather than make it a longer, full feature?
Darg: It was mainly a logistical constraint, because we’re not full-time filmmakers—we’re full-time aid workers. And so we were making this as best as we could part-time. We realize that there’s much more of the story to tell, and the struggle for us was trying to cram in as much information as we can, so that you really understand the most important parts of it, and telling that in a coherent way, obviously. There are lots of things that we’d hoped to add in, and hopefully we were able to tell the message concisely.
Mooser: And I also think that one of the things that draws us to making short documentaries is that, in this sort of YouTube generation, sadly… Maybe it’s not “sadly,” but information is really consumed on a smaller scale, in terms of length. People are constantly seeing shorter videos, so, I think, as filmmakers and storytellers, you want to reach the widest audience that you can. People are a little more accustomed to these shorter stories, so for us it’s a great format to really work in, because people really respond. The goal is just to try to tell a really powerful story, and one that has the potential to make a huge impact, to getting the U.N. to take responsibility and to helping the Haitian government eradicate cholera.
That short format is one we’re very comfortable with, especially since we both shoot all of the media for our non-profit organizations; we’re used to this format of 15 minutes or 27 minutes.
When you’re filming something as intense and personal as the cholera outbreak on its ground level, do you run into any resistance from the Haitian government or any other powers that be?
Mooser: Since David and I have both been working in Haiti for so long, we both know the parameters of where we can and can’t shoot, and what the lines are that we can’t cross. Luckily for us, the subjects of this film are like family to us, and Joseph is very proud of the film. He said somebody came up to him on the street, who had seen it, and told him that he’s a “superhero.” To us, that made the whole film worthwhile.
Darg: It’s an intimate film for us, because we’re so close to the family affected by it, and Joseph himself. I think if we were just filmmakers who wanted to parachute in and tell this story, it would be very difficult for us to have this kind of access, without having these pre-existing relationships that we’ve developed over time.
Once the Tribeca Film Festival ends next weekend, what’s the plan for trying to get more people to see Baseball in the Time of Cholera? Because it definitely needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Wilde: Absolutely, you’re 100% right. It will be at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival next month, and then hopefully some other festivals after that. Then, it will have a theatrical run in May. After that, the plan is to give the film away for free, to put it online and allow people to share it, because the point is not to make money from this film—the point is to get the word out and contribute to this movement, to make sure that 7,000 more people don’t die next year of cholera.
The baseball angle should certainly attract a wide range of people, too, even though Joseph’s love for baseball is only a small part of the film. Do you see that aspect of the film as a gateway in for otherwise resistant viewers?
Wilde: Yeah, and that was originally what the film was supposed to be about: just baseball. And it organically seemed to evolve as you guys were filming.
Darg: If we were just going to make a documentary about cholera and Haiti, there’d be a very limited audience for that, I think. But by having a very personal story about… It’s an interest story, really, about kids playing baseball in Haiti. That’s a good door into the subject, and the film sheds light on that.
Mooser: Our first film was about the year after the earthquake, and so it was really about the rebuilding of the country, and we represented that with the building of this movie theater. With Baseball in the Time of Cholera, it’s really about the second year after the earthquake, and for anybody who knows anything about Haiti or who works in Haiti, it’s about cholera. So the film hopes to be a snapshot of a year in Haiti two years after the earthquake.
We hope that the film gives a sense of… This is what’s happening, and here are some kids who are playing baseball; there’s a lawyer who’s fighting the U.N., there are aid workers out there working to treat victims of cholera, and all of these stories are running sort of parallel, and they find ways to meet towards the end of the film. But that idea of taking a snapshot of a taste of what’s happening in Haiti is what we really think is the most important aspect.
The thought that a film solely about cholera in Haiti wouldn’t appeal to a large audience is pretty sad, though, and it seems that it’s partly an issue of people outside of the country not being educated enough about the outbreak and what’s been going on there.
Wilde: Well, I think the earthquake was such an enormous catastrophe, and there was this enormous outpouring of generosity and care from people all over the world. People really contributed in many ways, with their attention specifically, and I think fatigue follows that. I think that’s part of it.
People also tend to think of Haiti as a place where bad things are always happening, so when they see on the news that people are dying from a sickness that they don’t understand, they just assume that’s kind of what happens in a developing world. Sadly, that’s something that people take for granted: the idea of that’s just how life is for those people, and that’s just simply wrong, of course.
It’s up to people who understand the issue to update their peers about it, and I think documentary film is the most powerful and beautiful way to do that. And there have been a few great journalists who’ve been covering this issue, so it’s not that no one has been paying attention, but documentary film is a great way to get people to understand the personal effects of something like cholera.
And just as you said, by being brought into the story by Joseph, you can then understand the calamity of his mother dying of this disease, and how sudden and foreign this disease is—it’s certainly not just a part of a developing world. Cholera hadn’t been in Haiti for 100 years, so it’s a combination of all those factors. So it’s great that now there’s a film that will bring it into the consciousness, and hopefully stop it from happening again.
Darg: A good sound-bite for you, since Complex is a men’s brand…
Wilde: I’ve got one: boobs!
Darg: A good sound-bite is that, in America, we have seasons for our sports—we have football season, and now we’ve just entered baseball season. In Haiti, they’re entering cholera season, and they have seasons of suffering. We really feel that this film is an important one to help bring an end to that cholera season in Haiti. The rains come in and the cholera rises, and then the rains go and the cholera dips down. We want this to be the final year that it really explodes again.
People should not continue to die from this disease, and the U.N. has the power to really put a stop to it, but they haven’t been doing that, despite the fact that it’s their fault that the disease is on the island. So the message of this film: Take action, United Nations, because it’s your responsibility to stand up and do what’s right for the victims of this disease.