- Melina Paris
By Melina Paris, Culture Writer
Film producer and director Jack Baric and LA Harbor International Film Festival founder Stephanie Mardesich joined forces to produce the San Pedro oral history project Stories of Los Angeles Harbor Area.
Mardesich and Baric previously worked together during the beginnings of LA Harbor International Film Festival, or LAHIFF. Baric eventually stepped away as he became busy with his own films and projects, ultimately earning an Emmy.
Mardesich had an idea to cover the history of the diverse people in the community of San Pedro. She was thinking of an oral history project. So, the first person she called to help her execute it was Baric, who also owns Baric Media Entertainment. They met to discuss the project in May 2017 and now, a year later, they are in production. They submitted a proposal to Supervisor Janice Hahn to secure funding and they received a portion of what they asked. Mardesich said they were well advised to stick with it and to not give up.
Mardesich knew of the need to preserve oral stories in San Pedro and Wilmington. She and Baric decided to include the whole Harbor Area and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The idea was to represent as broad an illustration of subjects as there are people in the Harbor Area.
“We’re thinking bigger than our immediate waterfront,” Mardesich said, who 15 years ago founded the LA Harbor Area Film Festival, or LAHAFF. “We realized if we only kept the Harbor towns we would preclude Lomita and Harbor City and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which is inherently what we’re trying to preserve.”
It comes down to people’s stories. They wanted people who were well-known with established names in the community. They also tried to find those who would be less well-known but have great stories that they haven’t had the opportunity to tell.
Mardesich noted Stories of Los Angeles Harbor Area is different from the 2009 four-part documentary series about the history of the Port of Los Angeles.
“We wanted more of the immigrant stories and the people of the generations that we still see, the greatest generation, the progeny, the future,” she said.
So, they built a list of who they wanted to interview.
“We had way more people than we could schedule for interviews,” Mardesich said.
“We’re going to end up doing about 23 or 24 interviews and that’s only scratching the surface,” Baric said. “Being in a port town and a town that attracted immigrants, you get a deeper and richer number of stories that are epic in nature.”
Baric described some of the stories they heard. There is one about Vlado Huljev, a Croatian man who escaped from then-communist Yugoslavia. After arriving in New York, he got on a train headed for Riverside. He twice got off the train and got lost, the second time in Kansas City. He did not speak the language, but he found one lady who spoke Croatian and she helped him to get back on the train.
This is Baric’s first oral history project. He loves history, but not the way it’s often taught.
“You lose the sense of it and the drama,” Baric said. “How compelling a period of time it was and what people were up against because history is fascinating.”
He compared the story of the Croatian man to another epic story about Olivia Cueva Hernandez, a teacher from Wilmington, who told Baric the story of how her family escaped Pancho Villa’s revolution in Mexico. When her grandfather went back to Mexico for his family, they walked for a year-and-a-half to get back to the United States.
“You hear one story and think, ‘Wow, how crazy and unique and epic!” Baric said. “Two hours later, you’re hearing another story just as epic from two completely different parts of the world. Yet, they all ended up here in our little community.”
Former Assemblyman Warren Furutani spoke eloquently about the experience of the Japanese evacuation from Terminal Island. He told how the women had to do much of the work of the evacuation because the men had already been arrested before they all left.
“What you learn when you do a project like this is [that] although the stories are different, they all have their own twists,” Baric said. “The similarities are actually quite striking and commonalities between people who come here are far greater than their differences.”
“If we do not preserve our history today, we’ll lose it tomorrow for the future generations,” Mardesich said.
Baric and Mardesich hope to have interactions with people who will say “this sounds like my story.”
It will be a way for them to find new candidates to include in the future for part two.
Baric said he feels as a society we are coming back around to listening again, the same way we used to listen to radio before television. It has come around full circle in podcasts.
Baric’s production company has produced documentary films, corporate videos, commercials and public service announcements. Baric has written and produced three documentary films and directed four of those, including, A City Divided (2013), Bloody Thursday (2009), Searching for a Storm (2009) and Port Town (2006).
A City Divided (2013) recounted the football rivalry history between the University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles;
Bloody Thursday is a revealing documentary about the struggle of dock-workers during the Great Depression. Searching for a Storm, for which he won a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award, asks if the United Nations is guilty of using its international war crimes court to justify United Nation’s failures during the war in the former Yugoslavia; and Port Town is about seven historical stories of San Pedro men and women who participated in varied activities from sports victories to the revered local fishing industry.
Mardesich is also an alumna of the USC School of Cinematic Arts graduate school program in film history, criticism-aesthetics.
Baric said the criteria for candidates was more art than science. Both he and Mardesich, being from the Harbor Area, already knew a number of people whose histories they were familiar with. Yet, it was about their ability to articulate those histories.
“We tried to pick people who both had a great story but could also tell a good story,” Baric said. “Then we also tried to create a diversity so that we weren’t telling 20 fishing stories or 20 longshore stories … To make it like we were almost casting directors and we needed a certain type to play a certain part.”
They also represented generations.
“I wanted to be part of this because I wanted to document this and some of the stories from when we grew up, “ Mardesich said. “We have so many Camelots in this town.”
Running with the idea of Camelot, in the legends of King Arthur, Camelot is a place where truth goodness and beauty reigned. The John F. Kennedy administration is often idealized as the American Camelot. Baric believes we are in a current phase of our next Camelot.
“We’re going to have a great next generation (and) preserving history is very important,” Baric said.
Stories of Los Angeles Harbor Area will be digitally distributed on Facebook, YouTube and an upcoming website to have all the stories located in one place. They will release their first stories on Aug.16, for Facebook’s “Throwback Thursday.” Then every week on TBT people will be able to see a story from the Harbor Area.
The idea is anyone can watch it anywhere. They are very realistic about who their audience is: people from the Harbor Area. The ability to put it on social media gives people the opportunity to share and for the project to gain a following.
“What [the] 21st century America is sorely lacking is knowing each other’s stories and offering each other the respect from where we came from or where we are because we’re talking at each other rather than with each other,” Baric said. “If you sit and take the time to watch the different stories you quickly come to understand how noble many of these people are or how noble their families are. You gain a respect for them. And, when you gain a respect for them, you treat them better. A project like this has the ability to make us all rise up and be better, if we allow ourselves to.”