P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
BIFF 2023: I came, I saw, I conquered – I mean I found ways to resist the conquerors! One step at a time – though none of us have much. Step one: Åsmund Hasli’s Ping Pong Family (2023). Step two: Sharon Roggio’s 1946: The Mistranslation that Changed Culture (2022).
I drop into Bergen like a paratrooper. I want to ‘fight the power’ but the clock is ticking. That’s because generally the powers-that-be are winning and I’m losing, like 99% of everyone else. They’re pushing me hard, squeezing me dry. So, I’ll have to take what I can get in the time I have, play to Bergen Internastional Film Festival’s strengths. It’s a festival renowned for its documentaries, great vehicles for challenging authority, fighting the good fight.
I’m happy to see good films – and BIFF always has plenty – but I’m also after some data. I had better explain – as quickly and simply as possible: I’m investigating the goals of documentary filmmakers and how they put cinema to work in their pursuit. I’m especially interested in how this works in a conflict and there’s almost always a conflict, if only the one lurking in the background – or just off screen.
It’s not hard to see the conflict in Sharon Roggio’s 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted Culture (2022). This is a frontal assault on Christian bible-thumping homophobia, turning the evangelicals’ own word-of-God fundamentalism against them. You have to look a little harder for the conflict in Åsmund Hasli’s ‘feel good’ Ping Pong Family (2023) but it’s there. In the red corner: The rag-tag collection of oddballs and deadbeats who enjoy a game of ping pong, and, in the blue corner, the almost invisible yet implacable force of authority. To sum up, it’s Us versus ‘The Man’ – as usual – apologies to Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s School of Rock (2003). The battle lines are familiar but no less important for all that.
What is strange is how such disparate works could have so much in common. Weirdly, they’re both off-kilter family sagas, but off kilter in so very different ways. Hasli’s is just rather fraternal – and sisterly – and that half ironically – but feels like one big happy family for all that. Roggio’s is united by blood but torn asunder by prejudice.
I’ll start with the table-tennis movie so we can clear up one issue without further ado. Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for ping pong. As a youth it was the only ‘sport’ (one step up from shuffleboard) for which I showed much aptitude. This was both my pride and, of course, my everlasting shame.
So, I totally understand the urge to play, why they gravitate to these tables set up by the local council at Schous plass, in Oslo, but I also need to remember that there’s more to this than the dubious appeal of a dumb game. In different ways the players are the walking and pinging embodiment of Oslo’s margins, indeed, the margins of the margin that is Grünerløkka: they’re all outsiders of one sort or another. Maybe they’re bottom-feeders with nowhere else to go, or quite literally foreigners, struggling to adapt to a strange new country. Whatever the cause, they are drawn like fridge-magnet verse-fragments to this strange gathering of drunks, drug addicts and athletes, where they are misfits no longer.
The beauty of the subject-matter lies in its expression of humanity, flawed as always, but humanity at its best all the same, spontaneously coming together, igniting the mysterious and glorious spark of community and belonging. This is what Åsmund Hasli managed to capture in this his first feature-length film. Impressive, and what’s not to like about this ping-pong family? The problem is, as Lenin knew, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. The ‘family’ is, in this regard, a metaphor for the recurring tragedies of nation-states. Every coming together marks its new exclusions. A sense of belonging too often comes at a price, not least for those kept or pushed outside.
The municipality is worried that the ping-pong enthusiasts are making a hostile environment by routinely turning the square into ‘party central.’ Others, especially those with children, are starting to stay away. So, the gang shows up there one day and the tables have been moved. However, their spirit, literally and metaphorically, is hard to kill. They’re used to the tough breaks, to being constantly pushed away, further, deeper into the margins. They move the tables; they find the tables; they follow them across town if necessary.
Ping Pong Family is a consummate observational documentary. It’s the visual narrative that lends it shape, like a good work of fiction. The filmmaker is conspicuous by his absence, but he is very much there behind the scenes all the same, ping-pong partisan that he is.
1946: The Mistranslation that Changed Culture is more conventional and hence considerably less subtle. The filmmaker invites us to follow an investigation: How did it happen? What does it mean? In 1946 someone introduced a brand-new word into an English-language bible. The word was ‘homosexual’ and it helped consolidate the prevailing view in traditional Christian culture that any form of sexuality outside the hetero norm was a sin and a one-way ticket to damnation.
The detective work is fascinating and instructive. We discover there was no right-wing conspiracy to clamp down on sexual variety, only the prosaic effects of heteronormative assumptions and some heavy doses of ignorance. There was also a struggle for truth, with a gay expert on Ancient Greek pushing back against the ignorance and distortion. The damage was done, however, as the amplifying effects of entrenched beliefs did their work. The mistranslation was reproduced oh so readily by all the evangelical and popular incarnations of the holy text, which followed.
What lends the film its peculiar dynamism is the filmmaker’s own personal circumstances. Her father is a preacher, and her sexuality was never and never will be tolerated – let alone accepted. Yet he has at least engaged with his daughter, though she is a lost soul in his eyes, and we even meet him on screen. That painful, destructive divide of intolerance is right there at the heart of the action. And he will never be persuaded. The archetypal fundamentalist, the bible is the truth to be followed to the letter. Nothing can be neglected there: ‘Not one verse,’ as he puts it himself with considerable satisfaction.
The failure to convince him is interesting. It illustrates the dispiriting power of dogma, of course, but also the importance of confronting it on its own ground, its home territory. If the received text has a mystical authority, then pick that text apart, show where it came from, how it changed. It didn’t help Roggio’s father, but it certainly helped the gay Christians featured in the film. It gave them resources they could use to reconcile their lived reality with their faith, to generate an alternative consensus, and even to build their own Christian community in opposition to the evangelicals.
The overwhelming impression I gained, as a spectator of this excavation of the origin and meaning of the text, is of the decisive influence of the values and concerns of human beings in their time. One important example is the apostle Paul, just a man, with a strong spirituality no doubt, with a direct relationship to God even – there I can at least suspend my disbelief. The simple equation of the text with the word of the Superior Being nevertheless seems so hard to sustain under the weight of the film’s forensic, historiographical examination. Was the intention and sense of his original words any more or less worthy than their later reworking? What chance or miracle allows the word of a man (and it’s usually a man) to be hallowed as Truth, as the literal word of God?
The film is an eye-opener, a revealing case-study of the workings of dogma upon the fabric of organised religion. Like Ping Pong Family, it’s also uplifting, capturing the indomitable human spirit at work, the capacity to come together, to find some strength and solidarity in the face of adversity. Here lies another similarity between these very different films. They focus on the good fight and their fighters. The forces of opposition recede a little into the background. They are handled warily, carefully, even gently, in the case of the daughter trying to rebuild the semblance of a relationship with her estranged father.
I’ll take that – it’s a start – but we need a whole lot more. Building an enlightened, loving, and revolutionary movement is only half the battle. The forces of darkness are not going away – on the contrary! There is still work to be done, and many more eggs to be broken. In the meantime, I’m already gone, back to the grindstone, the ‘workaday’ world directed by The Man. I have obligations the same as everyone else. We all have to do our bit. The planet isn’t going to destroy itself! Once again I’m reminded that time is short.