Full interview with director of film about Uganda Little League Baseball team

Posted August 16, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 5,783 views


By Tom Housenick, VARSITY BLOG ~ Jay Shapiro, a Parkland High School graduate now living in Manhattan, directed a film, “Opposite Field,” about the plight of a Little League team in Uganda.

The 29-year-old spent three years on the project, including living in the African country for large chunks of time.

A story on his project first appeared Monday’s print and online editions

Here is the complete interview from last Thursday.

TOM: What went into your decision to bypass a trip to Israel after 11th grade?

JAY: I talk about that in the extensive blog I write ( [My parents] saved up a bunch of money after 11th grade. A lot of my friends were also going. I wanted something different. There was no rhyme or reason. I wanted something more adventurous.

I knew nothing about Africa. One night at dinner, I told them that I wasn’t interested in Israel. They scoffed it off. They told me to find something else if you want, but they expected me to go to Israel.

TOM: How did you decide on Africa?

JAY: I researched a group called Experiment in International Living, a small group. They take 10 high school kids to strange places to do counseling, community service.

I got it down to Thailand and Ghana. I knew that was crazy enough to scare my parents. Two nights later, at the kitchen table, parents, who are wonderful for a lot of reasons, I talked to them about it and said this looks cool. They chose Ghana, because I would fly out of JFK and they could see me off. If I went to Thailand, I would have flown out of the West Coast.

About Africa, the only things I knew were what I was taught to Sally Struthers and her commercials and National Geographic.

There are a lot of stages to understanding Africa. No one really gets to the last stage. It’s a frustrating, beautiful play.

It is romanticized about how the kids there play, they are poor but happy. It’s more a place of desperation. They’ll step on their neighbor to get their next meal.

TOM: How did you get started on the film?

JAY: It was intimidating, especially as a white person. It was an intimate experience. It was very personal. I was alone, had to make friends. At home, most of my friends went to Israel. I often find myself fantasizing about what the western world thinks of Africa. I didn’t have the right answer. I knew I wanted them to get it the way they weren’t getting it [before I went].

What better way, years later in life, to affect the United States than to use baseball as a way into thinking new way. It was a way of inviting people into the story as baseball fans, even if it was done in shifts.

TOM: Did that first trip plant the seed to making this current documentary?

JAY: The seed that was planted in 11th grade, I made several trips since. I got a grant in college, went to west Africa to make a documentary, It was a constant battle to understand [Africa]. I learned something new every day.

I’m a storyteller. I wanted it to be my life. I majored in fiction writing [at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.]. But I realized I didn’t have an attention span for it. I got into screenwriting. That was the natural progression.

At Clark University, I had amazing supporters. I wasn’t at USC, NYU, but [Clark] had a film department with a lot of resources. There weren’t a lot of people asking for [money]. Anytime I asked, they were supportive of micro grants.

TOM: What happened after college?

JAY: Coming out of college, I wanted to be a writer, but knew I needed to get job, so I learned the back end — film editing. It makes me a better director, better everything.

All my jobs out of college, before I could get anyone to believe me, was editing commercials. It’s tough. I moved to New York, a tough place to pay rent. I hate LA, so I had to freelance everywhere to get by. It’s tough, 24 hours a day to edit everything I could find.

Playing major league baseball was a childhood dream. Baseball was a big part of me. [MLB] offered me a full-time job. I did it for three years, editing, directing some commercials for stadium jumbotrons.

I had a pass in my wallet to get into any major league stadium anytime for free. How cool was that?

TOM: How did you get started on the project in Uganda?

JAY: Richard Stanley, he was the guy, my pathway into the Uganda thing, that I should go do this thing.

It was more of a dangerous situation. I found a job I liked [at MLB], but knew it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. This decision was more difficult.

Richard is a crazy person. I try to be able to read people. I don’t even try to read him. He’s crazy and rich.

At some point, he bought a portion of the Double-A team, the Trenton Thunder. I met him at a diner in 2008, or ‘07, in New York. He’s from Staten Island. He had a stack of Polaroids of swamps in Uganda, and said he was going to build baseball fields, swimming pools, dorms.

I’ve been to Africa before. I’ve seen a lot of projects great and noble, but never off ground, how it’s difficult to do it in a place like Africa.

You have to be kind of crazy to do anything in Africa. That’s what convinced me. He might be crazy enough to do it, to be Willy Wonky in the middle of nowhere building baseball fields.

The only thing that I know that motivates him is to say something is impossible. He wants to prove them wrong.

TOM: How did you find out about Stanley?

JAY: I heard about him when I was at MLB, filming an interview with Dave Winfield. He was going to Ghana for baseball. After the interview, I talked him. He said about there being no baseball there. He got me in touch with a guy overseeing baseball in Ghana, who turned out to be con artist. But that led me to Richard Stanley.

I went to Richard’s complex, got money from my producer for one month to see what was there. That’s what you do with documentaries. You get seed money and come back and prove there is a story there.

I was impressed right away with his construction, maybe 50 percent was done, two fields playable, plans for three more. Half the dorms were finished. The guest house was comfortable, but I knew that wasn’t the story, not a documentary about a crazy guy doing charity work.

He was hosting a local tournament, with the kids coming later. When the kids came, I expected rudimentary baseball, kids learning for the first time. [But] they were really, really good. I took a step back, saw something a lot bigger going on here.

I knew when I saw them play, there was a story there. I knew I had to dig to find it.

I came back [to the United States] armed with eye-opening footage. I didn’t have a lot of trouble finding people interested.

They were skilled, knew what they doing on field, way better than thought. The younger kids were better than older kids.

They faced a lot of typical challenges, from the north, war, child soldiers, pretty hard stories, hard lives they lead.

They don’t dwell on that, like you’d expect. They are resilient. In a lot of ways, they don’t grieve enough about it. Their dad dies. All dads die. It’s a continental depression in lot of ways.

In Uganda, they are proud of their country. All the little kids, if they make it in baseball, they all wanted to come back to help Uganda grow baseball in their country. They’re pretty selfless.

Baseball not popular in Uganda, but those playing it are like a family. They all want to win.

TOM: Talk about what has transpired with the team on the field.

JAY: I’ve been following them over two years now. Last year, that was as close as they could possibly get [to the Little League World Series], and to lose incredibly heartbreaking tie-breaking rule and didn’t get to play in the championship game versus Saudi Arabia.

They were really good last year. When they won, there was a celebration, and more and more kids showed up asking to play. It was validation for everyone involved in it. It was a generational story for those who made that possible. Skills came from a lot of people giving a lot of time.

I don’t think they knew how crazy that was that they were there [in the regional final. They don’t really get it. When they beat Saudi Arabia [this year], they weren’t nervous or scared. Maybe, they do [know] now.

TOM: Who have you grown close to in Uganda?

JAY: George, the head coach, the pioneer there. From my digging, baseball started there in the mid-1990s. A missionary group, UPI, Unlimited Potential International, used baseball to attract kids, preach the word. They already were very Christian there.

The kids were interested in game playing, not missionary work.

It started with softball. He was one of the first ones to pick up bat. There was a tragic car accident that killed 11 of the pioneers. [George] was in a different. Car. That gave him motivation to keep going. Their win in a lot of ways was for them. George and I went to crash site to tell them they won.

TOM: Were there any communication barriers?

JAY: It’s a British colony. They speak and learn English in school. They get by with English. I learned lot of the local language.

I gravitated to a lot of them for a lot of different reasons. You tend to homogenize the experience in Africa. It’s such a different, unique set of circumstances.

Arthur, I love talking to him. He’s smart, insightful.

Asuroff is a fun kid to be around, a great attitude.

Ivan, the star of this team, is the poorest kid on team. He lives in a equipment shed. He and his grandmother and a few others live there. It’s miserable. He’s an incredibly gifted athlete. There’s something about the way he plays. He’s shy off field; he shuts down, camera or not. He’s so soft spoken. Between the lines, he’s a leader, loud, confident. He’ll do anything and does. I feel that kid will end up somewhere great.

If I pitched this idea years ago, baseball in Puerto Rico 10 years before Roberto Clemente, I wouldn’t be shocked if Ivan would be [this country’s Roberto Clemente].

TOM: What about how the situation with the visas went down?

JAY: I wasn’t there for the process, day to day. Once I found out, I understood the embassy’s decision. It wasn’t handled [well] on any side. Little League wasn’t prepared for this problem, documentation problem. Adults in general on every side fence weren’t ready.

[In Uganda], the government, schools, parents weren’t ready. The only thing ready is the kids’ talent, but that was trumped by other things.

For the film, it is an opportunity for change. I don’t know how to fix it. It’s really hard to fix. They’ll never have documents as good as a kid from New Jersey will.

They know they have to change, but they need help to change it. It’s not an intentional lying thing.

People get it. Africa is a really different place.

They shouldn’t have been able to go to Poland [for the regional tournament] with these documents. I uncovered plenty of mistakes. But they were mistakes, not lies or cheating. This is an opportunity to fix it, unless Little League says no poor kid should have the opportunity to play in our tournament, which they don’t. They have to address and fix it.

No one wants this to happen to anyone again in any sport.

This has elevated the film to place where it can be more important now. It’s bigger than just a sports movie. There is hope that [everyone involved] will get it right one day.

TOM: What’s next for the film?

JAY: It’s a hot property right now. I don’t know where it is right now. You can see footage start running on Sunday and Outside the Lines. It’s a four-minute feature, a snapshot of the kids over there and what happened. It’s mostly reaction, not from film. I’m editing it, a news piece.

TOM: How did make it regarding food in Africa?

JAY: East African food is the worst food they might make. It’s bland, starchy, nothing to it. I carry around a branch of hot peppers.

TOM: What’s next for you?

JAY: I want to write, man. If I write and do this for the rest of my life, if I can write like this, nothing that beats this.

The longer I keep living, I’m finding people who play baseball and love it as much as I do. It’s great.

TOM: Is there one baseball story that sums up your love for the game and your relationship with your dad (Ed)?

JAY: There is one story I tell. I’m playing for the South Parkland Youth Association. We’re playing a pretty good team. I was pitching. We’re up one run with two outs in the last inning and a kid on second. Chris Wolfe, a big, strong kid, the best hitter for sure, is coming up. My dad, the manager, called time. He asked if I wanted to walk him. I have a lot of friends on the other team. I wasn’t going to be chicken. I said, ‘no.’

Dad is always dad, but he’s pretty good about [being my coach] when I’m playing. He always keeps that line intact.

He takes off his hat. He could tell I couldn’t get him out. I told him I could. For one moment, he was dad again and not my coach

The first pitch, [Wolfe] homers to left-center. We lose the game. We walk off the field. I go home. I don’t eat dinner that night. I’m in bed. He knocks on my door and asks, ‘Jay, you OK?’ I said I was.

He said, ‘Well, good, you’re starting the next game on Saturday’ and closed door.

That was one of the moments when baseball was so intertwined in our family.

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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