Director: Max Lemnij
Running time: 21mins
As perpetually engrossed as I might be in the world of sport, even I have to admit that it does not make for inherently compelling documentary material. Even the start-to-finish recounting of the most incredible sporting achievements can feel like watching paint dry if they are not handled properly. First and foremost, what enables a film about sport to capture the imagination is how it draws upon the moments of human conflict we can relate to, drawing us in to invest in a competitor’s story, while using that energy to build to a crescendo in a single moment of ecstasy of agony at the film’s finale.
The magic of a sporting documentary like this is that is can whip up a harmony of emotive moments which can even carry those who do not care for a particular sport along for the ride. Asif Kapadia’s Senna is rightly regarded as one of the greatest sporting documentaries ever made because – despite many people feeling droopy-eyed when Formula One actually comes on the TV – it taps into the emotional rollercoaster of Ayrton Senna’s journey to becoming a three-time Formula One racing champion, before the maverick driver’s untimely death at age 34. Similarly, as Indy Film Library saw with Julius Dommer’s remarkable film ASCONA, if you can capture the intoxicating enthusiasm someone has for something as apparently trivial as mini-golf – show what it means to them, and what it makes them feel – you can essentially spin straw into gold, carrying us along for the ride without necessarily even liking mini-golf, but fascinated by the lives of those people to whom it matters so deeply.
Sadly for Max Lemnij’s meditation on table tennis, The Pipe Overhead has give us something of a flat serve. Focusing on Florin Milciu, a Romanian table tennis champion and renowned coach, the story is recounted almost entirely by its subject in excruciating talking head shots, which are all too rarely broken up with photographs or footage of any actual play. Milciu’s painstaking recollection of his life – from being a small boy playing on a wonky table in a basement, to taking on the sport’s very best across Europe – certainly features some moments of humanity, but it is all peak and no trough.
Milciu is a thoroughly likeable man, and does provide some much-needed moments of levity amid his anecdotes – including the strategic of placing his friend Mihai Lupu at the end of the table where overhead pipes would smack him if he chased the ball too enthusiastically – however at 21 minutes long, the film feels like a great deal of what he has to say is just filler. A number of his more rambling encounters – such as getting drunk on a plane with a woman who turned out to speak Romanian, and carrying eight people around in his old car – do not seem to serve any particular purpose besides adding run-time, and for the sake of pacing they might have been better left out altogether.
At the same time, the rest of Milciu’s journey is almost completely dry. Whenever he recalls meeting a new obstacle, like finding out that to reach the top of his sport he needs a new racket, or a coach, moments later he follows it up by simply obtaining that help. He is not coaxed by the interviewer to dwell on those moments of defeat, probed on how it felt to come up short having thrived as an amateur, or reminded of the moments where his dream might have seemed impossible due to his monetary or physical limitations.
That last point is particularly frustrating because, as we learn in the last second of the film, Milciu was born with a form of cerebral palsy. In the climactic moments of the piece, we finally see Milciu playing table tennis during one of his coaching lessons, before a clumsy title-card reveals that his success came in spite of having ‘spastic triparesis’ – something which inhibits the movements in three limbs; typically, both legs and one arm. I am not entirely sure why the director determined to hide this detail from us to the very end – whether he was seeking to shock us, or challenge assumptions that when talking about sporting achievement we automatically think of someone entirely able-bodied – but it is frankly a detail that could have made the entire film come alive had it been introduced sooner.
Milciu’s determination to become the best would have been that more engaging had we understood the difficulties he would have faced on his ascent. It also would have provided people with similar conditions with a greater degree of encouragement. Simply concluding “this did not keep him from successfully pursuing his sports career” is not good enough. What hopes and fears did he have corresponding to his disability? What adversity did he face in terms of other people’s perceptions of those with cerebral palsy? Apparently he felt there was a need for more help for people like him, because he went on to coach other people with disabilities, but this is not addressed in any meaningful sense either; just a cheap photographic reveal in the closing seconds of the film. If someone wants to go on the same journey as Milciu or his protégés, but is being met by road-blocks every step of the way, simply hearing they are not alone, and that there are still ways of succeeding, could make all the difference.
Besides its failure to draw out some of the deeper and potentially more challenging elements of what should be an extraordinary story, the film also suffers from a somewhat threadbare technical approach. Due to Lemnij’s determination to conceal Milciu’s disability from us until the conclusion, there is almost no footage of any actual table tennis, while the photographs featured are so face-value that they tell us literally nothing about the happy or sad moments they might depict. His body is almost always obscured in some way, while Milciu’s blank expression is impossible to read in any given photograph.
Meanwhile, the distinctive click-clack of the ball bouncing off a hard surface that is so distinctive to the sport is tragically underused too. The lack of a soundtrack isn’t always a bad thing for any film – but organic sound needs to be weaponised to fulfil the same role in that case. Showing what might have been, the film is bookended by the hypnotic thrashing of competitive table tennis, and for those brief moments the scenes come alive in a way they did not before. With the repetitive clatter of ball and bat serving as a metronome, the moments of determination and drama which fell flat before seem to have more substance, more meaning.
Not every film could focus on 20 minutes of a single man talking step-by-step through his career in an obscure sport, without me checking out long before the closing credits. That speaks more to the fact that Florin Milciu is clearly easy company to keep; an affable, charming man who has led a rich and rewarding life, despite the odds being stacked against him. It’s frankly quite sad that the story of this strong and determined character has been told in such an underwhelming manner.