There is more than a touch of sentimentality about Hugh Hartford's lovely table tennis documentary. Ping Pong, which is the highlight of an interesting selection of non-fiction features at the East End Film Festival, thankfully avoids the obvious pitfall of ever becoming patronising towards its elderly characters. The focus is on the over-80's world championships and there is clearly no hiding the director's admiration for his subjects, who propel the film along at a speed faster than many of the participants can move.
What is most startling (and most welcome) is the fact that even the over-80's take the table tennis competition seriously. It becomes evident that the game of table tennis isn't just a means for our competitors to keep fit and stay active, there is more going on here. The game, and more specifically, the competition, allows them to engage with life itself. There are politics, rivalries and foul play (at one point a bat is stolen) and there is no doubt that this is all the more fascinating when you consider that the eight characters Hartford chooses to focus on have a combined age of 703. There is also something very funny about one of the players, Les D'Arcy, pondering important philosophical questions and quoting the likes of Rudyard Kipling in between games of table tennis with players you are sure will keel over at any moment. It is this kind of levity which keeps the documentary ticking over.
Of course, the underlying theme here is that of mortality. Death is the pre-eminent focus not just of the director but the players themselves. One German woman takes up the sport after the death of her husband and talk movingly about how it has not only given her something to live for, but how it has had a clearly positive impact on her health. Ping Pong isn't only concerned with emotional stories though, for this is a sports film and the subjects are as determined to win as much as any other athletes. As the tournament reaches the latter stages the metaphor of winning and living is too much to ignore. These are people who don't know when their time is up, people who don't know which of them will make it any further. It is enthralling to watch such remarkable individuals summon up the required energy and willpower in order to keep their place at the table. Hartford's skill, meanwhile, is to capture an event where death looms so large and make it fun.