Director Elie Grappe on ‘Olga’
Late 2015, after directing a short film on ballet dancing, I co-directed a documentary on an orchestra, being familiar with the world of the Conservatoire (music academy). I filmed a Ukrainian violin player who came to Switzerland just before Euromaidan. I was deeply moved at how upset she was when she told me about the revolution, and the way the images had affected her.
I found the connection between the various patterns that had appealed to me during my first short film: filming the passion of a teenager, her body in action, and confronting her personal issues with collective ones.
Exploring the potential link between geographical and personal borders. Making a film about exile, with a heroine who feels that she does not belong, torn between several loyalties and faced with a geopolitical situation beyond her. How can she reconcile her personal desires with the course of History?
Gymnastics, as does music or dance, embodies the effort that very young people may demand from themselves in the name of passion. It is both a collective and individual sport, echoing with Olga’s dilemma.
Full of sounds and in constant motion, that discipline is quite cinegenic. With such a codified sport it is also interesting to film its gaps – breathing before performing a figure, the eyes, hesitations, mistakes. It is during those moments that you can sense the gymnasts’ vulnerability, that is to say their humanity. And become aware of the risks that they take.
I film a discipline in which words are not central. Olga ends up in the country of a father she hardly ever knew and her French is quite poor. She might be chatty when using Skype with her mother or her friend Sasha but she keeps having mental blocks and getting her words mixed up when talking to Swiss people. Olga is a teenager, the age when identity is blurred, also in her very flesh since her body is changing while she is at the peak of her career as a gymnast.
For me the Euromaidan revolution is particularly fascinating to observe – the demonstrators came from all political sides and social classes. Within such a dislocated society it was an amazing surge of solidarity. To depict it I only used videos that the demonstrators made using their phones at the heart of the event. I was hit by the intensity, the presence of bodies in that footage, conveying a collective urgency to show.
From Switzerland where her training is taking place, Olga is haunted by the images of her city, which she no longer recognises. A high-performance athlete, she finds herself completely at a loss when faced with the events affecting the lives of her mother and relatives. When these videos sweep into her daily life as a gymnast, Olga finds herself in a floating world, a suspended moment in time, in a constant state of tension. And this conflict is staged in the film.
In Switzerland, Olga is both safe and far away from what is going on in her country. The Swiss Confederation, at the centre of Europe and yet not a part of it, claims a neutrality and a distance that Olga will never have.
Magglingen, a training facility for Swiss Olympic athletes, is located above Biel. It is an open-air, narrow plateau where winter is as beautiful as it is anxiety-inducing. Euromaidan footage tackles such a hushed, preserved wilderness throughout the film.
Olga only has her passion for gymnastics to hold on to. She is on trial within the Swiss team and to join it she needs to apply for citizenship. In Ukraine you lose citizenship if you apply for a foreign one. But does Olga want to choose?
Anastasia Budiashkina plays Olga. She is the key to the emotion of the film. For her part and the parts of the other gymnasts, I did not want to work with professional actors. I had to try and capture the truth in the actresses. Which is why I chose young elite athletes accustomed to the risks associated with training, to life within a centre and to the spectacular nature of a championship.
The girls who play Olga and Sasha are part of the Ukraine national reserve team. The trainers and some of the athletes –including Steffi and Zoé – are members of the Swiss national team. I met them all during the writing stage. With their testimonies I was able to make the screenplay richer and more accurate, even though the characters remained fictitious.
What I liked about these girls is the gap between their ideal of perfection and who they are outside their practice – teenagers flooded with emotions, with their strengths, fears and conflicting desires. They put their trust in me and went through this long shoot with amazing courage.
On the set I asked the actors to inhabit the situations using their own words, feelings and responses. My work involved suggesting a space in which they were free to surprise me, to add brighter and more ambiguous colours to the characters I had imagined.
Filming high-level athletes requires specific measures that match their significant amount of physical effort. For sequences involving gymnastics the shooting adapted to their training pace. Therefore fiction eased its way into situations that could have been part of a documentary.
Writing started in 2016. In 2020, shooting was suspended due to the coronavirus crisis and was finally completed nine months after it started. Today, at last, I am delighted to introduce you to Olga.
Directed by: Elie Grappe
Production Companies: Point Prod, Cinéma Defacto, RTS - Radio Télévision Suisse
International Sales: Pulsar Content
Producers: Jean-Marc Fröhle, Tom Dercourt
Written by: Elie Grappe, Raphaëlle Desplechin
Director of Photography: Lucie Baudinaud
Editor: Suzana Pedro
Assistant Editor: Clémentine Lacroux
Art Directors: Ivan Niclass, Pascal Baillods
Costume Designer: Isabelle Boucharlat
Music: Pierre Desprats
Production Sound Mixer: Jürg Lempen
Re-recording Mixer: Simon Apostolou
Sound Editor: François Musy
Anastasia Budiashkina (Olga)
Sabrina Rubtsova (Sasha)
Caterina Barloggio (Steffi)
Thea Brogli (Zoé)
Tanya Mikhina (llona)
Jérôme Martin (Adrien)
Alicia Onomor (Juliette)
Lou Steffen (Andrea)
Alexandr Mavrits (Vassily)
Courtesy of 606 Distribution
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