It's that time of year when everyone in Phoenix has baseball on the brain, but, oddly enough, America's favorite pastime is also big in an Indian state called Manipur. If you're like us, you've probably never heard of Manipur, let alone know that it's full of baseball lovers. But that's exactly what director Mirra Bank set out to tell the world in The Only Real Game.
Her new documentary follows a group of Manipuris who have kept the game alive in the country since it arrived there during World War II. Despite differences in culture, baseball, in its essence, means pretty much the same thing to Manipuris as it does Americans.
Bank admits she was always more of a painter growing up, but, through an interest in photography, she began working in film as her medium. Her first documentary, Yudie, went to the New York Film Fest, and her love of the "engaging" storytelling involved in long-form documentaries began.
Her latest work, The Only Real Game, came to her when she was approached by First Pitch, an organization that formed to support the baseball community in Manipur. She says that her response was an immediate and resounding "yes" when she heard of the intriguing interest in baseball there, combined with the strong female presence in the game.
"Women have staked it out as a place they can become coaches," she says. "But they also see it as a way to protect children from other dangers."
With oppressive force from the Indian government and rebel militias, there's a lot of conflict in Manipur, a region only recently enveloped by India. Despite all of the violence in the region, baseball is thriving. Bank says this is due, in part, to the openness to all genders and ages, as well as the ability to succeed as a team and individually. However, there is a stronger draw in the game's perceived healing powers and uncorrupted quality in a place where the government and even other organized sports are as corrupt as they come.
"Symbolically, this game of baseball represents something they consider to be pure -- a sign post of something they would like to have in their own life," she says.
The film follows First Pitch's efforts to bring MLB-sanctioned coaches and new Spalding equipment to players in Manipur. The results are touching, with the players and coaches both forming lasting ties to each other. When watching the film, you can see the positive impact the game and the professional coaching has on Manipuris.
"In strife torn places where there's real danger, for whatever reason, it's a game that allows people to enter something that's full of joy and team spirit," she says. "It's competitive, but joyful."
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The film infers parallels between the psychological conditions of modern Manipuris and the soldiers who brought the game over when they were stationed there in World War II. Although India as a whole is a cricket-playing nation, Manipur adopted baseball as its own in an effort to distinguish it culturally. Bank says the Manipuri's athleticism keeps that identity alive and baseball is just one aspect of it.
"It's like a looking glass where you can look at culture that's totally unknown for most Americans," she says. "You see these people who want the same things we want and you feel compassion for what people are going through there."
Just in time for Cactus League action, Mirra Bank's The Only Real Game will open at Harkins Camelview 5 on Friday, March 7, and run for one week. Following the film will be a Q&A session on the value of international scouting and other baseball topics.