You might think that octogenarians playing ping pong sounds like a strange subject for a documentary, and you’d be right. Director Hugh Hartford manages to, over a brief 76-minute runtime, wring laughs, thrills and a strong sense of humanity out of his wily subjects, while tapping into that universal fact binding the human race together – that one day, we all will die.
Ping Pong follows 9 elderly folk from around the world as they travel to Inner Mongolia to compete in the over-80s World Table Tennis Championships. The first face we meet is Les D’Arcy, an 89-year-old British man who, perhaps owing to his active lifestyle, seems anything but that age. Contrasting him is good friend Terry Donlon, who we first see in hospital facing a grim cancer prognosis, with the illness affecting his bones and inhibiting his play. Others have their own afflictions, but one thing is consistent throughout – to live without table tennis would, in fact, be death to them.
For those subjects not lucky enough to be blessed with ox-like health in their twilight years, ping pong appears to possess curative qualities, keeping them going when death faces both themselves and their loved ones. Take 89-year-old German player Inge Hermann, who not only endured the death of her husband, but suffered a brain illness, a stroke, and was then confined to a nursing home. However, it is in the home that her aptitude for ping pong was nurtured, and alongside it, her health began to improve.
Still, the most astounding participant in Hartford’s documentary is unquestionably Dorothy DeLowe, a 100-year-old Australian table tennis player, the oldest known competitor in the world, and a veteran of the World Championships. Having lost her husband and her daughter within 18 months of each other, she attributes table tennis to helping her get over it.
It would be easy for a documentary like this to devolve into miserablism, and even if that were Hartford’s intention, the subjects are so likable and honest about themselves, that this never becomes the case. It is less a downbeat comment on the inevitability of the human condition, and more a jovial celebration of the human spirit, suffused with unexpectedly sharp humour from the old folks themselves.
The film’s opening third introducing us to these 9 competitors, who also include a revered Swedish favourite, a spunky Venice-born American senior Olympian, and a Mongolian who swears by a steady diet of booze and cigarettes alongside vitamin supplements. Some of the 9, of course, lose in the early stages and are quickly sent on their way, while we stay with the favourites through to the end. The real fun comes when the subjects end up playing each other, and we get a double-ended insight into the joy of the game and its wider meaning to them.
At the end of the day, these people aren’t blind to the fact that their lives are near an end, and Hartford sensitively engages with this. D’Arcy refers to death as “the winning post”, as he ponders what might be on the other side of it, while Terry, who pants through his match, and seems to be perennially diagnosed with another bout of cancer, appears content simply to defy doctor’s prognoses on a daily basis.
Avoiding the tendency to indulge morbidity for the sake of convenient pathos, Hartford instead fashions an uplifting and inspiring film about not allowing the size of your number to limit you. The will to live is strong in these ones, and they provide a pungent reminder that the elderly are artifacts we won’t get back once their time is up. That these ones also happen to be exceptional table tennis players – as evidenced best by an epilogue that’s both hopeful and emotionally involving – is just icing on the cake.
Ping Pong makes a firm case that a strong spirit will aid your longevity. It is a documentary both irreverently funny and deeply affecting.
Ping Pong is on limited release from Friday.