Director-producer Mirra Bank has always been interested in artists. Her last film, 2002’s Last Dance, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award, documented a creative, sometimes stormy collaboration between Pilobolus, a modern performance company, and Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. Her work took a somewhat different turn in 2007, when she and her husband, Richard Brockman, a physician and writer, heard about the people of Manipur and decided to get involved. The film that resulted—a documentary called "The Only Real Game," narrated by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo—debuted at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 1 and won the prize for best documentary. The film tells the story of the embattled, impoverished people of Manipur and how a group of Americans are trying to help them through an unlikely route: baseball.
Formerly an independent kingdom bordering Burma, Manipur was forcibly annexed by India in 1949 in a plebiscite that was hotly contested. After 10 years of quarreling, an insurgency opposed to the annexation sprang up and martial law was imposed, a situation that continues to this day and places the people of Manipur in the crossfire between government soldiers and the various guerrilla forces—some of them bandits rather than patriots—that have evolved.
Today the state of Manipur is a place of guns, violence, drugs, HIV, and almost no economic opportunity for its citizens. Under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act passed in 1958, the Manipuris are deprived of their civil rights and have no recourse if they are stopped or arrested. Living in a war zone, they have little chance of getting jobs or experiencing joy—which is where baseball comes in.
The sport was introduced in Manipur during World War II by American soldiers stationed there. A people known for their athleticism, the Manipuris fell in love with the game, which was almost unknown in their country. They still love it today, and a group of Manipuri players, with the help of an American nonprofit group called First Pitch, are trying to turn baseball into a way out of their dire economic situation and also to make baseball a positive counterforce to the violence and chaos of their environment. Here, Mirra Bank explains how she hopes her film will help.
More: How did you get started on this film?
Mirra Bank: Muriel Peters, a producer I know in New York, went to Manipur as part of a cultural delegation arranged by a colleague of ours, Somi Roy, who grew up there. Muriel—"Mike"—is a big baseball fan and she heard about the baseball scene. When she told me, before she left, that she intended to see Manipuri baseball for herself, I said, "Take a camera! This is a film."
When they returned, Mike created First Pitch and my husband, Richard Brockman, joined the board. He and the other members saw that baseball in Manipur—which attracts not just men but also women, who play and coach—was a wonderful antidote to the destructive, depressing, dehumanizing aspects of life there. My husband was particularly interested in the women, as a vector for helping to stanch the HIV epidemic there. It was First Pitch that asked me to make a film.