“There are a few things in life that make me proud to be a human being. This is one of them,” said filmmaker Greg Hamilton introducing his documentary Mystic Ball at the Starz Denver Film Festival.
In 1981, Hamilton, a musician and martial arts student, was living in Toronto when he was intrigued by a man in the park who was deftly kicking around a hollow ball made of raffia cane. So began the “strange love affair between a boy and his ball.” Hamilton spent much of the next 25 years learning more about the noncompetitive sport of chinlone (which means cane ball), a pastime virtually unknown outside Myanmar, a country he visited many times to learn the game.
The Opposite of Murderball
Rules of the Game
One of the joys of attending film festivals is having access to the filmmakers themselves. Director and subject Greg Hamilton stayed for a Q&A session, and because it was a warm, clear fall day, he offered to teach a few chinlone basics to anyone interested. He even had a few of the cane balls for sale. The balls were made in Myanmar by soaking long rattan canes in water and winding them around until the ball is formed. The balls are then traditionally painted white so people can see them as the sky darkens (in Myanmar, it is too hot to play during the middle of the day). Hamilton advised that before you begin playing with a new ball, you need to separate the strips stuck together by the paint when a ball is new, or the ball will be too stiff and hurt your feet during play.
Before we started our mini-training session, Hamilton stretched and changed clothes. He admitted that if you play often, it is a painful sport, "like ballet," he said as he taped parts of his feet. Most people in Myanmar play barefoot, but he wore shoes that were fitted with orthotics because he has flat feet.
Chinlone is a dancelike team sport with no opposing team, played in a circle by six people who pass the ball to one another. Men and women play, as do adults and children, often on the same team. Six parts of the body touch the ball: the top of the foot, the sole, the inner and outer surface of the foot, the heel, and the knee. Players try to keep the ball from touching the ground by executing one of more than 200 traditional moves (among them the "grand knee," the "great crossover," and the "mandala"). The object is not simply to keep the ball in play but to do so as gracefully as possible. At festivals, live music is played to accent the action in the circle, and an announcer calls out moves and entertains the crowds with tricky wordplay.
The game may seem like a combination of soccer and hacky sack, but has some important differences. For example, players are encouraged to do one move at a time and pass the ball to a teammate, rather than showing off their ability to keep the ball in play alone (or "hacksturbating" as a hacky-sack veteran called it). Sometimes a player will solo in the center of the circle, with the remaining five teammates doing their best to support the difficult moves attempted by the soloist.
The best way to develop your skills on your own, Hamilton said, is to practice "chubiya": standing on one leg with your knee a little bent and repeatedly tossing the ball with the other foot, aiming first for 50 repetitions on each leg and increasing from there. "I do hundreds, or thousands of these every day," he said.
Just don't be surprised if you start to notice a trancelike sensation, called jhana. It's all part of the game.
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Many documentaries are made by people about their own singular passions, and this one is an excellent addition to the genre. Discovering the game of chinlone (pronounced CHIN-lun) provided Hamilton with a new focus. At first it was a purely physical pursuit, he says; surprisingly it became spiritual as well. Growing up in foster homes and defending himself from bullies originally attracted Hamilton to the strength and discipline of martial arts, he says, but he still felt conflicted about his dedication to this path: “I had always thought of myself as a warrior, but deep down I never liked hurting people.”
The first time he visited Myanmar to learn more about the game, playing with the natives “was like playing with Michael Jordan, or Baryshnikov.” As he received coaching from the country’s most experienced players and played the game more, the true nature of the game started to reveal itself to him.
The script includes many attempts to describe this experience. The feelings it gave Hamilton were “like making love; I felt like I was not human.” “My whole being was vibrating like a gong. I had never felt so perfect or so happy in my entire life.” “I was in a trance.” “Chinlone is a form of loving.”
He is not alone in his perceptions. One older player says, “Chinlone can only be played when the minds of all six players are one and the same.” The kind of focus needed is likened to the state sought by Zen students in sitting meditations. Another player featured in Mystic Ball says he wishes he could spread the game around the world: the cooperative, peaceful nature of the game would bring “no hostility, and loving kindness to each other.”
Hamilton notices that in the western world, “most sports are not playful,” but he finds chinlone to be different: “Beauty and elegance as the goal of a game? I love it!”
A Sport Without Winners
For Hamilton, who after 14 years has taken his practice “as far as I can go on my own” and starts playing with the people of Myanmar, the game becomes not only a meditative path toward spiritual clarity but also gives him a “feeling of family,” something he had missed in his childhood. He describes practicing in his hallway back in Toronto in the winter: “I used to love playing alone, but now I feel lost and lonely out here,” he says. (In the post-screening Q & A, Hamilton said that when soloist Su Su Hlaing, one of the players he features, saw the film, that scene made her cry.)
Despite his worries that he will “make the whole team look bad,” “Mr. Greg’s” participation is enthusiastically welcomed by the natives of Myanmar. His participation in the sport also raises its profile nationally; he even ends up featured on TV there. Chinlone is beloved by its players but valued little by others: it was one of many elements of Myanmar’s culture that British colonists tried to suppress during their occupation of the country (also known as Burma) between 1885 and 1948. The game, he says, is not taught in institutions (in contrast with soccer) and is seen as a poor people’s sport; once people get richer, Hamilton says, they tend to abandon it in favor of golf or tennis. But locals and TV film crews pack the festival grounds to see Mr. Greg play when he returns to take part in an annual festival.
“At first it was just funny to see him play,” one teammate admits. But Hamilton’s improved skill subsequently gets him invited to play on teams with some of the top players, who become “like real brothers” to him. The audience members cheer and grin in encouragement and pride that this foreigner has taken such a keen interest in their favorite local pastime. The film closes with Hamilton’s play on one of the teams of these expert players; by now he can play without fear of letting his teammates down, and his team’s skills help him play through a calf injury.
Winning Isn’t Everything
The documentary is nicely shot (on a combination of 16 mm film, mini DV, and Digibeta) and smoothly edited, with little that feels extraneous to the story. The soundtrack includes songs written by Hamilton as well as tunes from Myanmar musicians. (The music inspired audience members to ask about the availability of a soundtrack, which Hamilton said will be released in the future.)
As a Westerner, I find it challenging to grasp this game that is not played competitively nor to showcase the skills of individual players (except in its solo form, tapandaing, performed only by women; his friend Su Su Hlaing performs this for tourists to support her family, astoundingly keeping the ball in motion while skipping rope, balancing on stools and bottles, walking on tightropes, or twirling banners and flaming hoops). Chinlone is a game that involves a particularly Eastern emphasis on collective play; my guess is that no one will ever hear an announcer describe someone as the “Beckham of chinlone.” Hamilton says he would like to see this game promoted beyond Myanmar’s borders, but the absence of competition may make it a tough sale to people who are conditioned to celebrate only a person or a team that has been judged the best in the sport. Mystic Ball is proof, however, that there truly is more to sports than winning. Far more.