This article was first published on Live4 on June 6, 2013.
A producer and director who has made documentaries for the BBC, Sky Arts, the UK Film Council, Al Jazeera English and a host of independent projects, Hugh Hartford’s first feature- length documentary Ping Pong follows eight pensioners from four continents who meet in Mongolia to compete in the World Over-80s Table Tennis Championships.
Described by Empire as “delightful, hilarious and completely inspirational” and lauded by actress Susan Sarandon as “baffling, inspiring and sweet”, we sat down with the documentary maker to learn more on why “you’re never too old for gold”.
How did the subject of the World Over-80s Table Tennis Championships come to be your first feature documentary?
I was on a budget flight in 2009 and while flicking through the in-flight magazine a picture of Dorothy Delow caught my eye. Dorothy was 97 and dressed in the Australian team sports kit at the finals of the World Table Tennis Championships in Rio. Representing your country in a sporting event at the age of 97, chances are you’ve got a pretty interesting story to tell.
So l looked into the subject of veteran athletics and very quickly found Les D’Arcy in the UK. Les D’Arcy is a legend in the table tennis world (seven times world champ) and within minutes of meeting him he was quoting Kipling and other self-penned motivational mantras. Les introduced me to Terry, the film’s main character, and hearing about Terry’s life-long battle with illness and how he uses sport to overcome this I knew we had a story that could not only take us into sports and ageing, but into bigger issues of the tenacity and hope.
We hear that the stars of Ping Pong are quite an inspiring bunch with some 703 years of life experience between them. Can you tell us a little about them?
As well as Les, Terry and Dot, we filmed with Inge Hermann from Germany. Inge had never been to a World Championship before and only started playing table tennis in her nursing home. Inge’s story is incredible. She started playing after a series of strokes and onset of dementia and had to start from learning how to hold the bat and stand at the table. To think she trained herself from that and is now representing her country is remarkable.
Are you a bit of a ping pong player yourself or is it something you came to know more about while making the documentary?
I played a lot when I was younger and always have a game if I come across a table. Quite a lot of sound studios have tables in the dead space between the mixing desk and screen, so if you ever meet a sound engineer you know you’ll be in for a tough game! I’ve got a lot better since making the film, particularly tactics – that’s something I’ve learnt from Les, Terry and Dot.
Any defining qualities you think are required to cut it in the veteran table tennis scene? Is it highly competitive?
It’s very competitive – and that was one of the things we had to be sure of capturing in the film. I think you have to want to win to do well at the World Championships, but to win you have to use everything you’ve got. I think a defining quality in the players who do best is strength of mind.
What did you hope to capture in Ping Pong?
Ping Pong was never going to just be about table tennis. We knew it was a subject that had a strong storyline – the story of the World Championships really drives the film along – and this hopefully allows us to look at all the other things that are going on. A lot of it is about growing old and coming to terms with our mortality, but at the same time the people we meet in the film are more alive than most of us. It sounds odd, but I thought we were making a film about what it’s like at the end of our life. Now I think Ping Pong is much more about living than about dying.
What did you enjoy most about making Ping Pong? Anything surprise you?
It was a joy to spend time with the players and I hope that comes across in the film. Perhaps Lisa Modlich, the Austrian-born Texan, had the most surprises. We spent two weeks with her in Texas, which included learning about her life in the French Resistance and accidentally getting shot at by her husband in the woods.
Any lessons you took away from making Ping Pong?
Going back to the strength of mind, in the film Terry talks directly about the power of your mind over your body. All the players are examples of this really, with Terry fighting cancer, Inge fighting dementia. It’s a sports movie about the power of hope – the players just happen to be over 80 and some now over 100. I think I learnt things that apply to my life now.
Are you still in contact with the cast? Any plans to follow up on Ping Pong?
We’re in touch with all of them. Lisa came to the US launch in New York and met Susan Sarandon. Terry has gone to a lot of screenings in the UK. And where possible, Dorothy is keen to come to screenings in Australia. Who knows where the film will take us next, but at present we have no plans for more filming.
Where to from Ping Pong? Any projects you’re currently working on or in the pipelines?
There are a few films on the go. Quite a lot of short documentaries and we have one or two in film festivals now. But as yet, no big projects confirmed. Finishing Ping Pong, which for me was a big film, is a bit like emerging blinking from a cave. It takes a while to acclimatise.