Eight entrants compete for the World Championship Ping Pong title in Inner Mongolia. And they're all of pensionable age. With a tagline of you’re “never too old for gold” the participants in this eye-opening flick display wit, dedication and hope that many might assume had left these title hungry table tennis champs.
Their joint love of table tennis brings them together as they compete for the #1 title but it is their personal stories of plights overcome and dreams rediscovered that really sets them apart. A humbling and often humorous account Ping Pong fights for those that have almost been forgotten. We caught up with director Hugh Hartford to find out a little more about the obscure world of over-80s whiff-whaff.
Lisa Modlich with her husband Joachim. 86 years old. USA.
The concept behind Ping Pong is pretty weird. I’m not sure many people would come up with it. Why did you decide to explore this area?
I was on a budget flight in 2009 and absentmindedly flicking through the in-flight mag a picture of Dorothy Delow caught my eye. Dorothy was 97 and dressed in an Aussie sports kit. The photo was taken at the finals of the World Table Tennis Championships in Rio. The caption underneath read from the point of view of her opponent. “When I saw Dorothy being pushed up to the table in her wheel chair, I thought this was going to be an easy game. But then she pushed away the chair, stood up and beat me three games straight.” It was a sort of James Brown move, hobbling on to stage only to throw off his cape and launch into star jumps for two hours. Representing your country in a sporting event at the age of 97, chances are you’ve got a pretty interesting story to tell, but more than that, it was this playful use of how others perceive old age that attracted me to Ping Pong. Dorothy was aware of the image she portrayed and could use this to give her a competitive edge.
Are you a ping pong pro now?
No, not by any means, but I did get a lot of tips from the players. It's much more about tactics and spin than I first thought.
Dorothy DeLow, 101 years old, Australia.
How did you decide which stories to tell and which players to showcase in the film? They are all such great characters but what makes them so special?
We knew whoever we filmed had to make it into the later stages of the competition but also that something had to chime with their life outside of table tennis and the experiences in the competition. Very simply it's a cross-cultural look at old age, so we started by looking at the results tables from previous world championships and getting in touch with the consistently high scorers from interesting countries. After telephone interviews and meetings we built profiles of about 30 players that added something to both the sports story and the bigger stories of growing old. During the competition my hotel room walls were covered with these profiles and as the competition unfolded we would add comments and reassess whose stories were panning out. We filmed about 14 players to get to our final eight.
The German Ursula and American Lisa are what I’d called spunky. They are certainly not afraid to say what they think. Is this something that proved difficult whilst filming or was it a happy surprise to see their true personalities?
They were great fun and I think they add a lot to the film in terms of cutting through some of the sweetness. They were both full of surprises, and many of the things that happen in the film are happening as we found out about them - but I don't want to give too much away.
Ursula Bihl with her son Gerhard. 90 years old. Germany.
I think it’s great how all the players still have a thirst for life. Did you learn anything from them during filming?
I learnt a lot. Probably, the consistent attitude between them all is that they have no problem with their age - of course, they know their physical abilities aren't what they were, but, even at 100, they just don't see themselves as old.
Les is one of the most athletic and fit 90 year-olds I’ve ever come across. What’s he up to at the moment?
Les will be competing this year at the World Championships in Sweden and I hope he does well. He's busy though; the day after he gets back from Sweden he's carrying the Olympic torch in Market Harborough.
Les was a teacher most of his life and has been teaching sports in and out of school for many years. I think he's delighted to carry the flame because it was awarded to him for his life-long contribution to sports.
Les D'Arcy, 90 years old, UK.
A lot of the players have overcome many hardships in their lives, using ping pong to do so. Inge Hermann, a German lady who suffered from dementia, is a prime example. Were you aware of this sort of mental power before you embarked on this film?
No I wasn't at all aware of the power of ping pong to actually rehabilitate. That emerged only during our research so we were on the look out for that sort of story. Inge was a complete unknown in terms of past World Championships (China was her first) so we only met her there. Talking to her she described her life back home in a nursing home in Germany and how table tennis had saved her life and we knew we had to go to Germany to hear the rest of her story.
Were you surprised by the power of the mind over the body in these circumstances?
Yes, we were constantly surprised by this power of mind over body. Terry embodied this especially, he would say "You're mind can cure your body" and they are living proof of this.
Ursula Bihl in action
What is the ultimate message behind Ping Pong?
I think it's that. It's the power of the mind and the tenacity of hope.
What impact would you like it to have on the world?
We hope it's a moving, enjoyable film with a gripping story. But as well as the cinemas we've also started to put on screenings in nursing homes, retirement villages and day centres around the country. These screenings are accompanied by DIY table tennis kits. I don't know about changing the world but I think it should get a few more people playing.
Did you have a crazy wrap party with the cast?
We had a very very good time in Sheffield Docfest - which worked as a wrap party. After the screening there was a bar full of table tennis tables and a lot of ping pong silliness. Sun, from Inner Mongolia certainly liked a beer. While we stayed with him, part of him being a keen host was to ply all of us with lots of beer most of the time.
If you could choose one sport to play until you die what would it be?
Ping Pong. Of course!
Ping Pong is in UK cinemas from the 6th July and is screening as part of the East End Film Festival on 7th July at Stratford Picturehouse. For more information click here.