The filmmakers spent the majority of the 2011 season following the sisters as they both attempted comebacks from injury. While this footage is interesting and sheds a graphic light on the toll that playing professional tennis can take on a body, the more interesting story here is when the film makers dive deep into archived video and tell us about the sister’s past, growing up in LA’s Compton neighborhood and learning tennis from their father, Richard Williams. These segments nicely balance the contemporary footage of the Williams singing karaoke, goofing around, and dealing with their success and failures on the court.
Richard Williams is the enigmatic creature stalking the periphery of the film. While we learn that he selected tennis as a means to raise the family up, we’re still not sure how he – without much experience in the game – authored and then enacted a 78-page plan that has led to two of the greatest tennis players of our time, we just don’t get a sense of how he accomplished these things. What we learn about him along the way only clouds the picture – his difficult past coming of age in the racist South to his many different children from a variety of women (at one point in the film, a young man is with him calling him ‘Dad,’ but neither of the Williams’ sisters knows who the boy is.) Lightly touched on but not fully explored in the film is the role of religion in the Williams’ lives – the family are Jehova Witnesses, though the very disparate worlds of pro tennis and Compton collide in a moment of psychic weight as the girls detail the shooting of their eldest Sister in what was apparently a case of gangland mistaken identity. The grass courts of Wimbledon seem utterly preposterous compared to the sister’s reactions to this event.
Ultimately Venus and Serena is portrait not just of the two players themselves, but of the systems and processes built to get them where the are today, of the hours of hard work they put in to remain at the top of their games, and of the interplay of these processes and the shifting dynamics of family life. It’s a fascinating portait that leaves one with the feeling of having eavesdropped on their lives for an hour-and-a-half, but the filmmakers – perhaps rightly so – don’t endeavor to push us towards any single interpretation or conclusion about what we’ve seen, leaving this task to the viewer.
Live Long, Ping Pong
Opening for Venus and Serena at all showing this week is the locally produced short documentary Live Long, Ping Pong. This 6-and-a-half minute short introduces us to a variety of senior citizens who gathered in Columbus this past March for the Table Tennis competition at the 2013 Arnold Sports Festival at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
Since I was the writer and director on this short film, I won’t endeavor to review it (two thumbs, way up!), but instead only mention that it’s showing before all screening of Venus and Serena. The short was originally produced for the 2013 International Documentary Competition, a 5-day documentary challenge held this past March, and features an original score by Brian Hake (of Kopaz and Van Haken fame). Hope you get to see it and enjoy it.