The documentaries Seth Kramer has had a hand in making span the world, but the screening of his “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” at JCC MetroWest on Sunday, Oct. 7, will bring him back to his roots — in West Orange, where he grew up.
The film tells the story of an unlikely bunch of players, including some Americans, brought together to represent Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC). They discover unexpected strengths and an attachment to Israel, and against all odds, they surprised the world by advancing to the late rounds of the competition.
The screening is one of the “Extras” presented at various times during the year by the JCC MetroWest New Jersey Jewish Film Festival; the 2019 event is March 27-April 7. Kramer will participate in a discussion after the 7 p.m. screening.
After graduating from West Orange High School, Kramer lived in Israel for a year, and now lives with his wife, Kristen, and daughter, Lillian, in Red Hook, N.Y. He worked at Kenneth Mandel’s production company in midtown Manhattan — Mandel, a prominent filmmaker, is a native of Newark and lives in West Orange — for 10 years before joining forces with a colleague, Daniel Miller, and Miller’s friend, Jeremy Newberger, to start their own company, Ironbound Films.
The collaboration has been fruitful. Together they have created award-winning documentaries that have been shown in theaters, on television, in museums, and on the web. Kramer’s work has taken him to Siberia,
Kenya, Pakistan, India, and “some places that are literally not on any map.” The 47-year-old producer/director has been nominated for three Emmys, one for best historical programming, one for best science programming, and one for best economic and business programming. “Some filmmakers stick within a narrow subject area,” he said. “Not me.”
Still, Kramer never expected to make a film about baseball. Unlike lots of the people he grew up with, he wasn’t much of a fan. “I think I know why,” he said. “When I was young my dad forced me to play on a little league team called The Birds. I was the worst player by far — not on the team, but in the league. When I finally hit the ball, sometime toward the end of the season, the crowd went crazy.”
But for years, Jonathan Mayo, a reporter for Major League Baseball, nagged Kramer and his partners to make a movie about Jewish professional baseball players, guys like Sam Fuld and Ryan Lavarnway who were good enough to make it to the Majors, but not household names. Both had signed up to play for Team Israel in 2017.
“After a while we ran out of ways to say ‘no,’” Kramer said. “When Team Israel qualified to play in the World Baseball Classic — which is like the Olympics of baseball — we knew we had a great story on our hands.
“What we didn’t know was just how thrilling it would be.”
Israel, on the other hand, was already close to Kramer’s heart. As he put it, “There’s a lot to criticize, and there’s a lot to fall in love with. I’m in love with it.”
In addition to Israel, filming took them to South Korea and Tokyo, where the WBC was played. The work was grueling but fascinating. “What surprised me most was how good Team Israel played. They’d been given 200-to-1 odds of winning anything, and they ended up beating some of the best-ranked teams in the world,” he said. “I thought we were going to be doing a ‘Bad News Bears’ remake, but it turned out altogether different.”
The players, Kramer said, “were all good sports (no pun intended) about being filmed. They had a difficult job to do: to train and play to beat incredibly difficult teams. That’s not easy to do with a film crew following your every move.”
But “it was fun to film with them,” he said, and the competitors enjoyed the final product. “One player said to me, ‘You know, I wasn’t nervous when I was playing the games, but now when I watch them in the movie I’m on the edge of my seat, as if I can’t remember who won.’”
Since “Heading Home” premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February, audiences have responded the same way. “The reaction to the film has been nuts,” Kramer said. “There are a lot of Jewish baseball fans out there, and for them, this might be the best movie ever made. Audiences cheer the victories, groan at the losses, and laugh along with the players, who are actually very funny.”
Added Kramer, “You don’t have to like baseball or be Jewish to like the movie. It’s the best underdog story I’ve seen in a long time.”
If there’s one characteristic all Ironbound productions have in common, it might be this: “We love telling unexpected stories. My partners and I follow our interests, which leads us in some pretty crazy directions,” Kramer said. “‘Heading Home’ happens to be a sports movie about Team Israel. Our documentary before this one (‘The Anthropologist’) was about a mother who drags her daughter around the world to witness the impact of climate change on indigenous cultures. Before that, we made a documentary about Morton Downey Jr. (‘Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie’), which aired on CNN.” Another, “The Linguists,” traces two scientists racing around the world trying to document dying languages.
Asked what he takes most pride in, he said, “That’s hard to nail down,” but he cited the documentary he and his team made, at the request of then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, of the cleanup and recovery effort at Ground Zero after 9/11. “We were the only filmmakers down there. The film ended up being PBS’ signature broadcast to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack.” The footage they captured is housed at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, where the Ironbound partners served as moving image consultants.