The film that most drives me to queue up at this year's San Francisco Documentary Film Festival running bi-bay from November 8th-21st, is Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrdur Níelsdóttir, a Danish-Icelandic co-production directed by Kristín Björk, Orri Jonsson, and Ingibjorg Birgisdóttir, themselves participants in the Icelandic music and art scenes. I had heard (and watching this film will hopefully verify or disprove) that members of that amazing ensemble Sigur Rós helped 'discover' the hidden musical gems that Níelsdóttir was creating merely for her family and friends. And as has been said by many about this less populated island situated where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans pour into each other, most everyone in Iceland knows each other, and by extension, become 'family and friends'. That all said, a family obligation will actually keep me from hearing along with seeing on screen what the 70 year-old began recording on cassette tape in geographical and subculture isolation.
But what I have had the opportunity to see from this year's SF DocFest is Director Hugh Hartford's equally elder-ed Ping Pong. (This documentary also contains its own bit of pleasant music in the closing credits where the ping-pong-ing of a ball on table tennis table and raqcuet, what I've learned the British players call a 'bat', provides the beat). Ping Pong follows eight over 80-years-old players competing in the Senior World Table Tennis Championships. Two from England, two from Germany, one from Sweden, one avid smoker from China, one Austrian immigrant from the United States, and one 100 year-old sensation from Australia.
I've recently found myself appreciating the sport of table tennis while in Japan during the London 2012 Olympics. The only Japanese athlete representing my wife's hometown of Yamaguchi City, Kazumi Ishikawa, came in that bitter-tasting fourth place individually but ended with a Silver medal for the woman's team event. The moment when they secured at least the silver by beating Singapore in the semi-finals was something we got to watch over and over again because Japanese television constantly re-played that match. I still feel the teary joy sparked via my mirror neurons when looking at images of Kazumi and her teammate's crying after securing their place in the final gold medal match. The joy was not a chance to win gold. They were merely happy to finally get a medal for Japan in the event, guaranteed a silver. Everyone knew Japan wouldn't win the gold medal match because, well, the Chinese always win.
. . . Except on the senior circuit, as we learn from Ping Pong. Ping Pong is not a typical sports documentary designed to have you revel in exquisite athleticism. No one has 'impressive' kinesthetic skills here. You are merely happy some of these athletes can keep up with the demanding pace, let alone simple keep themselves standing up in the first place. As a result of not being able to show dynamic play, Hartford includes some nice diversions from the typical sports doc set-ups. For example, not much is shown of the final matches. More attention is paid towards the lives of the athletes and the demographic stage of life in which each athlete is an age cohort. Englishman Terry, the youngest of the bunch, is battling through life-threatening illnesses. German Inge is able to play through her dementia while her compatriot Ursuhla hopes to die on the table tennis table. Then there's Les, the Charles Atlas of senior table tennis, who looks like he'll go on for another 80 years at this rate.
Ping Pong treats its subjects with respect, letting them tell their own stories, allowing the humor and sympathy to come from them rather than imposing either upon them through editing. A core message is what such an activity can allow for us in our elder years. A senior circuit like that shown in this documentary provides regular exercise for the elderly, plus such competition provides the mental benefits of a focused challenge that offers the side benefit of enabling one to focus away from the pains and limited abilities of old age. And most important, it provides a community of folks who refuse to bowl alone, to adjust a Robert D. Putnam phrase, since it takes two to table tennis.