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Bengal Bouts film highlights Missions

Katie Peralta | Friday, November 6, 2009

This weekend’s premiere of “Strong Bodies Fight: Rough Cut” will reveal not only a few months’ work of a dedicated few, but also nearly 80 years’ work of a passionate many.

The 75-minute film, to be shown on tonight at the Browning Cinema of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, tells the story of the boxing club Bengal Bouts and its relationship with the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh.

Mark Weber, a 2009 graduate, former boxing club president and captain and producer of the film, hopes the it will not only educate, but also remind audiences of the significant connection between the club and the developing country.

“Our goal is to transform the connection [with Bangladesh] from sending them an annual check to an actual relationship,” Weber said. “It went from an abstract mission to something we could see and touch. This will give [audiences] a more personal understanding.”

Weber also hopes the film will encourage audiences to take action in the global fight on poverty.

“This is a story so unique and inspiring we hope to encourage people to go out and do good in the world,” he said. “We hope to empower the people [of Bangladesh] to also be their own agents of change.”

William Donaruma, a Notre Dame film professor who also produced the documentary, said he also hopes to give audiences not only a glimpse of what the Missions do but also an appreciation of the country itself.

“We want them [audiences] to have a better understanding of where and what Bangladesh is,” Donaruma said. “We want to show that the money [generated from Bengal Bouts] is helping people. This will be an entertaining ride but also informative.”

Weber said the Mission works from the bottom up to make Bangladesh a self-sustainable country through both education and the training of Bengali leaders.

“That is the difference between aid and development,” he said. “The key word here is empowerment.”

He said the missionaries in Bangladesh aim to “work themselves out of the job,” and help Bengali leaders help their own country. 

Weber, who majored in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and Film, said the idea for the film took root during his sophomore year in 2007, when he stayed on campus for fall break. During the week, he said, he met with Holy Cross priests to discuss their missions in Bangladesh.

“We’ve been doing this [Bengal Bouts] for 80 years,” Weber recalled thinking. “No students have been over there. It’s time to go.”

The project gained momentum that January.

“We formed a team that’s passionate and talented,” Weber said.

That May, funded by a joint effort of Bengal Bouts alumni and the Congregation of the Holy Cross, a group of five boxers, along with Donaruma and cinematographer John Klein, traveled to Bangladesh for two weeks to witness the progress of the missions and undertake much of the documentation for the film. The five, which included Weber, Pat Ryan, Leo Rubinkowski, Patrick Martin and Tomas Castillo, were the first students in the history of the program to travel to Bangladesh, Weber said.

As representatives of a Catholic university, the group was admittedly wary about their reception into the country, as Bangladesh is predominantly Muslim.

But the group was pleasantly surprised upon arrival.

“We were welcomed with open arms,” Weber said.

The group stayed with Holy Cross Missions in the various cities they visited, from the capital city Dhaka to other smaller ones like Jalchatra and Pirgacha.

There, he said, they witnessed the fruit of the missions’ years of labor — from the many schools to trained Bengali leaders.

“We did research over there to get an idea of what we wanted for the film,” Donaruma said.

The group encountered many technical challenges in the impoverished country.

Much of the time, he said, there was no electricity. Weber also said the team struggled to transport the heavy equipment, which had to be removed from the crowded van when crossing bridges. 

Once back in the United States, production of the film began as the team began looking through the documentation of the poverty they witnessed.

“The most difficult part about the post-production is finding the story,” Weber said.

After the production began, he said, another challenge was picking through the footage and also adding a musical score, which was composed by Gene Ort.

Weber returned to Bangladesh the following year to research his thesis, titled “Education: Life Blood of Sustainable Development.”

Weber said the Congregation of the Holy Cross first went to Bangladesh (then the Bengal region of India) in 1853. A main goal was, as it continues to be today, education. This includes not only opening new schools, Weber said, but also working to fund scholarships for students, initiate meal programs and pay for teacher salaries.

Boxing, Weber said, was begun at Notre Dame in the 1920s by famed football coach Knute Rockne as a spring training regiment for his players. Later in 1931 Rockne teamed with boxing coach Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano to hold a series of bouts and donate the donations to Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh. The tournament was soon dubbed Bengal Bouts.

Each year, Donaruma said, Bengal Bouts generates between $50,000 and $70,000.

“That goes a long way in a place like Bangladesh,” he said.

This year, Donaruma said, marks the $1 million mark for the boxing club.

The weekend’s premiere and its surrounding events were planned and organized largely by boxing alum Ryan as well as Weber’s mother, Karen. 

Bengal Bouts alumni, Weber said, will attend a private screening of the film tonight as well as a reception, have a reserved section of the stadium at Saturday’s football game against Navy and get recognized on the field at halftime.

“The core principles of Bengal Bouts don’t graduate,” Weber said. “The passion in alumni can be directed back to the Missions.”