First, a little back story: For the past twelve years or so, Clif and I have been part of a committee that plans a winter film series at Railroad Square Cinema, a wonderful independent cinema about twenty-five miles from where we live. The film series—Cinema Explorations—comprises six films, begins the weekend after New Year’s, and runs every other Saturday and Sunday until March.
This past weekend was the weekend after New Year’s, and Cinema Explorations started with a thoughtful yet snappy documentary called Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play. As a bonus, David McLain, the cinematographer, lives in Maine, and he was able to come to the Sunday showing for a Q & A after the movie.
Bounce begins by illustrating how play is integral to many species, including dogs, cats, otters, chimps, tigers, and, of course, humans. While young ones are especially apt to play, even adults play, too, from time to time. This play might seem to be without purpose and a huge waste of energy, but Bounce maintains that play, even if it’s rough and tumble, enhances creativity and teaches necessary social skills.
Enter the ball. Round things are found in nature, often in the form of fruit but also with rocks. Our primate ancestors ate fruit, used rocks as tools, and most probably used them for play. The earliest depiction of a game using a created ball comes from the Egyptians, but the ball was developed independently around the world, and those clever Mesoamericans even figured out how to make them bounce.
Once a ball could bounce, it became ever so much more exciting and unpredictable. (So exciting that the Spaniards initially banned the Mesoamericans from playing with their demon-possessed bouncing balls.) The bouncing ball gave us soccer, rugby, and many other games that involve a ball.
Bounce takes us around the world to India, Africa, and the Orkney Islands, the latter of which has developed a game called Ba’, which is only played on Christmas and New Year’s Day and almost defies explanation. It involves a crushing mob and a ball and two sides—the uppies and the doonies, the farmers and the fishermen. This sequence in Bounce is jaw-dropping, illustrating how Ba’ is certainly not for the claustrophobic.
After the movie, David McLain, the cinematographer, told us a little about how the film was made and also answered questions. He said that the hardest part of the film was to shoot free-play sequences, that nowadays American children have very little opportunity for playing without adult supervision. For this he had to go to Africa and India. McLain also noted that one of the ironies of Bounce was that making it was so much work. “But we all need to play,” he concluded. “The play state is important.”
Despite the hard work that went into making this movie, Bounce is playful, fun, and informative. In addition, the music is terrific, and the cinematography is outstanding. After seeing this movie, I will never look at balls and play the same way again. If Bounce comes to a cinema or festival near you, then go see it.