The 27-minute documentary will air on PBS on Thursday, April 14, at 10:30 p.m. and will rebroadcast on Tuesday, April 19, at 4:30 a.m. If you miss either broadcast, you can stream it at PBS.org for the next six months.
“It Happened in Havana” is the first film directed and written by Forest Hills native and professional photographer Judy Schiller, whose parents Isabel and Reuben Schiller happened to meet in Cuba after coming from the Lower East Side and Poland.
In the documentary, viewers can expect to see how Schiller’s maternal family made the trek to Cuba due to a quota of various ethnic groups being allowed into the U.S. following World War I.
Her grandparents were denied visas to the country, but realized that they did not need a visa for Cuba. The family ended up flourishing in the country, living there from 1926 to 1961. Her grandparents occasionally went back to Cuba for their business of importing and exporting fabrics.
Isabel’s cousin worked in New York with Reuben and suggested in 1942 that he visit Cuba after he didn’t like vacationing in Miami, where soldiers were being trained for war.
When he got to Cuba, he met Isabel and the rest is history, as they say. The couple used Yiddish as their means of communication since he didn’t speak Spanish and she didn’t speak English.
The film also covers their move to New York and the challenges Isabel faced, such as learning English and missing her family back in Cuba, while her father spoke about his time in the army after being drafted. Still, the couple remained married for 61 years.
In the documentary, they give advice on how to have a successful marriage. Schiller added that she didn’t realize quite how funny her parents were before filming began.
Although the film is a love story at its heart, there are still discussions on politics, Fidel Castro and presidents prior to Castro. Isabel also discussed what life was like as the only Jewish family living in a Cuban town.
“I tried to make a film that wouldn’t just be interesting to me and my family, but I wanted to make a film that would be interesting to everyone,” Schiller said. “I think I achieved that because a lot of people who see it say they wish it was longer, and I thought, well that’s a good sign.”
In 2005 at the Film Forum on Houston Street, Schiller saw a double-feature of Martin Scorsese's works, including a documentary that he made on his parents called “Italian American.”
At that point, Schiller was working in the film and television industry, but always wanted to direct her own film. The Scorsese feature inspired her to write and direct the story of her parents meeting and subsequent relationship.
Reuben and his siblings were heavily interested in camera equipment and various gadgets, which led to the results of extraordinary footage of Cuba in the 1940s and 50s, as well as footage of the Lower East Side as early as 1929. Most of the footage was preserved perfectly, so it was still in wonderful condition after decades.
“I always knew I had this treasure trove of home movies, there’s all this 16mm footage and I thought I have all this footage of Cuba in color, I should make a movie about it all,” Schiller said. “Especially when I read what Scorsese wrote about the experience of making the movie about his parents. He wrote that it freed him up creatively tremendously.”
Shortly after, in March of 2005, she brought three crew members and a list of questions to her parents’ home in Forest Hills. Both parents enjoyed their time in front of the camera, engaging in hours of conversations of the past.
Their sharp attention to detail was impressive, Schiller said. For instance, Reuben recalled living in an apartment with no electricity.
Just a month after filming her parents’ interview, both parents almost died. In fact, her father suffered a massive stroke and was left unable to speak in complete sentences.
“I didn’t realize until he died in 2009 that I had been working on the film very little because it was upsetting me to watch him talking normally,” Schiller said. “I started working on the movie in earnest after his death.”
The film was completed in 2014 and has been featured in six film festivals, including the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and the Bucharest Jewish Film Festival in Romania. Most recently, the film was screened at the Queens World Film Festival.
“This is my first movie, so it’s exciting to get accepted to all of these festivals and the response has been so warm and generous,” Schiller said. “I feel like my movie is the little engine that could, it just keeps going.”