Even if the only paparazzi happened to be a couple of local reporters, JFilm Festival’s opening night was still a hit, with nearly 300 cinephiles and communal supporters attending screenings of “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”
The baseball documentary’s Pittsburgh premiere and subsequent dialogue proved so popular that in the weeks leading up to the festival’s inaugural ceremony Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of Film Pittsburgh, added a second presentation to the roster. The movie tells the story of the improbable rise of the Israel national baseball team from a global ranking of 41st to 19th in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
So on Thursday last week, after she, Jonathan Mayo and Jonah Rosenthal treated viewers of the originally scheduled 7 p.m. showing to a brief discussion of baseball and filmmaking topics, the trio delivered a virtual doubleheader by heading one door down to Theater 10 of the SouthSide Works Cinema and leading another conversation of similar nature at the end of the 7:30 presentation.
In both settings, Spitz Cohan started the sessions with inquiries on the movie’s genesis.
Mayo, a Pittsburgh native, MLB.com reporter and executive producer of “Heading Home,” explained how years earlier he had attended a Jewish sleepaway camp with two of the three directors and that in the following years the friends had collaborated on possible projects, with this one actually coming to fruition.
“It was as crazy as it looks,” explained Rosenthal, a Taylor Allderdice and University of Pittsburgh graduate who now serves as a professional scout and mid-Atlantic supervisor of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Whether it required scouring Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or calling synagogues in the Dominican Republic, no stone was left unturned in discovering potential players, added the former director of baseball operations at the University of Pittsburgh.
Other questions were fielded by the three, but where they ultimately scored was in describing the endeavor’s personal nature.
“This has been the most surreal professional experience I’ve ever had. It’s not that I ever dreamed of making a movie, but the fact that I did it with Jewish friends and was able to combine my two hats — the Jewish side and baseball side — I’ve just enjoyed every second of it,” said Mayo.
“I went to a World Series, but this meant more,” added Rosenthal. “Some things are just bigger than us.”
“I was at the 2001 World Series when the Diamondbacks beat Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth, but this was so personal to me,” echoed Mayo. “Because of the Jewish side of it, it ranks way up there with anything else I’ve done professionally.”
“This was a great chance to see a story that I was not familiar with” and learn of its Pittsburgh connection, said Cindy Goodman-Leib, of Squirrel Hill.
Helen Eaton, also of Squirrel Hill, called the movie and the discussion that followed “invigorating.”
“Ideally it would have been wonderful to have the characters speak,” offered Paul Caplan, of Oakland.
Nevertheless, said Jason Neiss, of Squirrel Hill, “the movie was inspirational, fun and hilarious. It showed that Jews can do more than people think they can.”
That ability to achieve is what most resonated for Rosenthal, who said that many of Team Israel’s players are “out of baseball now.”
“In a lot of ways this was their last hurrah,” and being a part of this experience was “their chance to make their mark on the game,” he added. “Baseball is just in its infancy in Israel. This team allowed baseball to grow in monumental levels. Maybe one day that Sandy Koufax will come from Israel.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.