Doc Stars of the Month: Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González and Victor Baró, 'The Last Out'
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sami Khan (St. Louis Superman) and immersive producer-sound artist-director Michael Gassert’s POV-premiering (October 3, and streaming on PBS.org through November 16) documentary The Last Out “explores the shadowy nexus of pro sports and the migrant trail,” according to its accurate, yet humbly incomplete, synopsis. This riveting, multiyear portrait of collective self-sacrifice, which follows a trio of Cuban athletes who leave their home island to pursue the American (baseball) dream, is much more than the sum of any catchy logline. Above all, it’s a heartfelt look at three passionate young men—all from stable, loving, two-parent families—who would much prefer to stay put. But due to geopolitics and pro-sports hegemony when it comes to “America’s Pastime,” they are forced to swing at only the greyest of legal options.
Indeed, every year hundreds of talented, US-blockaded aspirants like Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González, and Victor Baró risk life and limb and exile to venture to Central America, lured by the (too often fool’s) gold of MLB contracts. If they manage to make it safely to Costa Rica, they can then hunker down in a no-frills camp set up by a slickster named Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American sports agent and onetime federal convict who did time for player-smuggling over a decade ago (and perhaps even more astonishingly, agreed to participate in the film). And then they train, train some more, and hopefully audition for scouts. Eventually, they either make it to major-league heaven or, more likely and tragically, they are booted out to travel back home (or to the US-Mexico border) through hell.
So, to learn all about being trailed by a camera on this harrowing path to the American dream, Documentary reached out to the intrepid threesome, who graciously agreed to serve as our October Doc Stars of the Month. Thanks to Samuel Didonato at Cinema Tropical for providing the translation during the conversation.
DOCUMENTARY: How did you first meet the filmmakers—and why did you agree to participate in the doc?
HAPPY OLIVEROS: I met the filmmakers when they first came to the stadium during our training. When they arrived they seemed very humble; they had the desire to help Cuban baseball by letting the world know about the situation of Cuban players. That is why I decided to participate in the documentary.
CARLOS O. GONZALEZ: We first met in the Antonio Escarret baseball stadium in Costa Rica, where we were represented by Gustavo Dominguez. I think we all accepted the invitation to participate in the documentary so that people could be made aware of the story, of what’s going on with Cuban baseball.
VICTOR BARO: We met the filmmakers in Costa Rica; I remember they arrived when we were training. They introduced themselves to us, everything went well. From the beginning, it felt like a family. And from there we agreed on our involvement.
D: What was off-limits to the camera, either for personal or political—or even safety—reasons?
HO: Honestly, I can’t think of anywhere they couldn’t film. I was open to them filming everything, and I always gave my best during shooting. Everything flowed naturally because I was just being myself.
CG: I remember we signed a release, but I don’t remember exactly what it said. Basically that they could film us only if we were okay with them filming in that very moment. I don't remember anything specific that they could not shoot.
VB: Well, as for things that couldn't be filmed, I don't think there was anything; we agreed that they could film us everywhere, whatever was needed. For our part, we were open to anything and everything. Honestly, they filmed everything, whatever was going on, without exception.
D: Which scenes are the most difficult to watch—and which bring the most joy?
HO: For me, the hardest scenes to watch are those filmed during my journey to the United States; my life was at risk several times. Like the part when we crossed a river [in Guatemala into Tapachula, Mexico] with a family with a baby just months old, and the driver demanded more money or else he would turn the raft around.
CG: For me, the hardest part to watch is when my parents cried; that moment is very emotional for me. What I think is the most fun is to see us in the scenes when we are all together, just telling stories and laughing.
VB: The hardest is to see my mother talking about me, saying that I was a good son. You know, just to have that feeling again—to feel how far apart we are without being able to see each other. So seeing her there, worried about me, wondering what I was doing, how I was feeling. That's one of the most difficult things.
It’s also hard to watch when all of us players were separated at the same time. Happy had to leave, and after that, each of us took a different direction. After so much time together—we were a big family; like brothers, you could say—seeing all that end was very difficult.
D: Did any scenes in particular surprise you—or perhaps clarify the shady nature of the recruitment game you unwittingly got caught up in?
HO: The scene that really surprised me was when I was crossing the bridge from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico at the border and then turned myself into US Immigration. Despite having so many mixed feelings, I looked so calm.
CG: I was surprised by the scene in which Gustavo Dominguez and a scout from Houston talked about my [contract] negotiation. Dominguez tells the coach who was there with us, Robert Munos, that next week Carlos González would be signed. I never got a clear answer about what happened because none of us were ever signed!
VB: Well, there are a lot of things that make you think, things I didn't expect and are surprising and difficult to watch. Like in the end how everything came apart—that was something we never understood. What happened that stopped us from achieving the dream we wanted so much for our careers? One by one we were sent away suddenly, without explanations, with nothing. Does that make sense? It's difficult, but well, thank God we are each healthy and alive, and that we have achieved many of our goals despite everything we went through.
D: So what are your hopes for the film—or baseball or US-Cuba relations—now that it is being seen across the US?
HO: I hope this film is seen throughout the world and continues to win awards because it was made with a lot of love and effort, and is based on real lives. My hope for Cuban baseball is that it is opened up to the world so that Cuban players can go and play and fight for their dream of reaching the best baseball—that is, the MLB big leagues.
CG: My hopes are that, first, everyone can see and understand what happened to the three of us while trying to play baseball, whether or not there was an opportunity to sign in the major leagues. The film shows the day-to-day experience and is 110% the reality of everything that is happening.
If it could help us financially, that would be welcome too! I believe that Cuban baseball players should have the opportunity to play the best baseball in the world, which is the major leagues. I’d also like to add that I am not great with words, and hope to be forgiven if someone takes offense to anything that I’ve said. Thank you so much for this opportunity, and I hope everyone enjoys the film.
VB: The hope that I have is that the film will go as far as possible in the world and that many people from all over will be able to see it. So they can understand everything we went through— what we lived chasing our dreams, struggling far away from family and everything we love. To see that you have to struggle for everything in this life and that it is not easy, not to give up; and to understand that you are always fighting for your dreams in spite of everything.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus, and Hammer to Nail.