Hugh Hartford’s Ping Pong is not your typical sports film. The UK documentarian followed a group of eight players as they prepared to compete in the World Over ’80s Table Tennis Championships.

He was initially inspired by Australia’s Dorothy Delow, who at over 100, is one of the world’s oldest and most tenacious athletes. “I saw a picture of Dorothy, taken at the World Championships in Rio,” Hartford says. “She was standing there wearing her uniform, and the description underneath was from her opponent’s perspective. The opponent said that when they saw Dorothy being wheeled up to the table in a wheelchair, they assumed it was going to be an easy game, but then Dorothy pushed away the wheelchair and proceeded to bear her. There’s a real sense of playfulness there.”

Hartford was taken with the idea of older people representing their countries in sporting events, and he knew they’d have a lot to say for themselves. As research for the film continued, he met an eclectic bunch of players from around the world. Some play the sport out of a life-long love of competition – take Lisa Modlich, the spirited retiree who collects awards while telling stories of her time with the French Resistance during the Second World War. For some, the game is a way to reconnect with life after suffering a tragedy – German Inge Hermann withdrew from life after her husband of 40 years passed away, and after suffering a series of strokes in a nursing home, found a renewed interest in life through ping pong.

While spending time with the participants, Hartford got to know them very well – he came to regard them as friends, which made watching them compete in the Table Tennis Championships all the more stressful. “There were times when we had to split into two crews to film when there were two games going on simultaneously,” he explains. “My brother Anson would take one camera and I’d take the other.” Hartford grew particularly close to the English player Les D’Arcy, and found himself too nervous to film when he reached the finals. “I couldn’t film it,” he says with a laugh. “Anson filmed his game while I filmed Lisa’s. There was definitely that temptation to get involved and shout from the sidelines and cheer people on.”

The players in Ping Pong may be old, but they certainly haven’t lost any of their fire. In fact, at times, the smack-talk gets downright personal. The film shows Lisa entering – and eventually winning – her first international tournament after playing in and around the United States, and her entry into the competition ruffles some feathers. Without giving too much away, the phrase ‘stupid cow’ is thrown her way by a jealous competitor in one especially colourful scene. “Yeah, her opponent was defending her title,” Hartford says. “In the previous competition, she’d won quite easily, and she was expecting quite an easy ride. Lisa was a newcomer in terms of the World Championships. She’d played a lot in America. It was surprising to see this woman coming out of nowhere and being quite a vicious, competitive player.”

Sadly, one of the film’s stars, Les D’Arcy, passed away earlier this year. Hartford is grateful that he was able to show Les the finished product beforehand. “Some of the participants didn’t realise we were making a movie – they thought it was just a very long news piece or something. Being able to sit and watch it with them was wonderful – there have been some noisy screenings, with cheering and clapping and laughing. To see it with Les in particular was really great.”

BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN

Ping Pong is in cinemas now.

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