We introduce filmmaker Mirra Bank, who directed the baseball documentary THE ONLY REAL GAME. The documentary focuses the importance of baseball for people in a remote and troubled place. Mirra talks about bringing this subject matter to film.
Mirra Banks (center)
1) What inspired you to document this subject regarding baseball’s huge significance and importance on the Manipur people?
I initially heard about baseball in Manipur from Muriel Peters, a longtime colleague. A New York-based producer, and a big baseball fan, Muriel went to Manipur as part of a cultural delegation. She’d heard rumors of the sport being widely played and loved there, and wanted to see for herself. I said, “If that’s true, it’s a movie.”
It was true. On her return, Mike created First Pitch with a small group of NYC baseball lovers. The board members recognized that baseball in Manipur— played by men, women and children —was a healing antidote to the corrosive armed insurgency and military occupation that has gripped the state for more nearly 70 years.
Our production company, Baseball Dreams, with Laine Valentino and Richard Brockman on the producing side, was in place; so when First Pitch formed, I was happy to step in to direct the film. Having traveled and worked in India before, I was eager to go back. I was drawn to the incongruity of American baseball being so passionately loved in cricket-mad India, and even more to the poignancy of Manipuris embracing the game amidst true hardship. Their courage was inspiring, and gave ‘the only real game’ a whole new meaning for me.
It was equally compelling to make the first ever feature documentary for a world audience set in Manipur. The opportunity to draw the world’s attention to this rich, little known, beleaguered culture was irresistible. Film can move hearts and change outcomes, and that was my hope.
2) The organization First Pitch plays a huge role in the documentary. How did you find out about the great organization?
First Pitch founder, Muriel Peters, had lived for years in India. She maintains strong ties there – so her combined baseball passion and deep roots in India were key in bridging both worlds. As were the connections made by special Manipur liaison, Somi Roy, who is a native, and was then working with First Pitch. Other key Board members were equally invested. Randye Ringler, who spent 25 years with the NY Mets organization, connected First Pitch to MLB International, which runs the Envoy program. It was this program that sent Jeff Brueggemann (a former Minnesota Twins pitcher) and David Palese to coach in Manipur. First Pitch also reached out to Harlem RBI, who invited Manipuri kids to come visit their program in NYC. And First Pitch engaged Spalding Baseball to get on board. Spalding donated more than 500 hundred mitts and balls, which went to players in Manipur. With First Pitch and Major League Baseball working jointly, the Manipur coaching program captured in THE ONLY REAL GAME was an immensely hopeful cooperative effort to bring world class baseball skills to a forgotten corner of the world.
3) Where there any other surprising facts you discovered while filming in Manipur?
The most surprising thing to me was Manipur’s tough and talented women – they are every bit the equal of men and boys on the field, and they are, in many ways, the engine that drives the sport of baseball in Manipur. They see baseball as a way to bring their kids into a healthy place. Discipline, cooperation, joy—there’s competition in baseball but it’s not a war game, it’s a peace game. Mothers see baseball as a safe haven for their kids, a way to keep them away from drugs and HIV. They find a sense of unity and hope in baseball—as well as a bridge to the wider world. This discovery of female leadership in such a daunting situation was a joyful one for me.
4) Not only does the film focus on baseball, but also features major social issues that are currently in Manipur. Where there any challenges/difficulties that impacted filming?
My goal was to make a human rights story wrapped inside a baseball story – and to a large extent I think THE ONLY REAL GAME succeeds in doing that. But the obstacles to making such a story in Manipur were considerable. Poor (in some areas, non-existent) infrastructure – Constant electricity and internet failure (when internet existed at all), frequent blackouts, curfews, no proper sewage or sanitation systems or reliable drinking water. No dependable public transport or road maintenance. Travel outside the capital city of Imphal is very restricted, and often impeded by blockages imposed by the insurgents or government forces.
That said, we had excellent Manipuri crew members working with us. I went everywhere with my local crew, filmed freely in people’s homes and places of work – and never felt in danger. Inconvenienced by obstacles but always supported by the resourcefulness of our Manipuri colleagues. And in the film Manipuris tell their own story – they speak freely despite living a dangerous situation because they want to be heard, they want to shed light on what is happening.
5) Do you have any updates on the people featured in the film or about First Pitch?
Lalit is engaged to his girlfriend, Monteshori, who has gone on to nursing school.
Bame, Pupu, Lalit and their ‘brotherhood’ teammates continue to play pickup games and to practice on makeshift local fields
Bhanu remains the revered ‘godmother’ of baseball in Manipur – she is one of the few to hold a job in her chosen profession: coaching in the state run Sports Academy for selected middle and high school age students. Bhanu coaches all sports, but is the uncontested ‘head coach’ in baseball, for both boys and girls.
Devika holds down several jobs and coaches local kids when she has spare moments.
Many of the men and women coaches in our film continue – without support or formal ‘jobs’ – to coach baseball to the benefit of all the children in Manipur. And Manipuri boys’ and girls’ baseball teams still travel to baseball tournaments throughout India, and win or place very high in those competitions. It’s a great source of pride for everyone.
Journalist and peace advocate, Binalakshmi Nepram, is more visible than ever on the world stage as a leader of focused, persistent non-violent efforts for a solution to the troubles in Manipur. Bina works through two organizations she founded and helps to lead: Manipuri Women Gun Survivors Network and Control Arms Foundation of India. She is the frequent recipient of international awards and recognition for her work in human rights, and participates regularly in seminars and programs at the UN.
Watch THE ONLY REAL GAME today.