The final film in our Slavic series came on the day after we completed the 4th annual Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian Studies Conference, so while I was able to attend and take some notes, I was too wiped out to write anything about it, hence the delay in this final review. It was a wonderful series, accompanied by an insert in the Ryder (here’s a pic of the cover).
The series was organized by the Indiana University Slavic department in collaboration with the Ryder Magazine and Film Series, with support from the Byrnes Russian and East European Institute. My takes on the first five, Murina, EO, The Other Side of Everything, Lunacy, and Petrov’s Flu are here, here, here, here, and here.
Olga (dir. Elie Grappe, 2021) is probably closest to Murina in terms of its style, theme, and approach to the subject, though it relies much less on place than the Croatian film and much more on political context, especially during and immediately following the Maidan Uprising of 2013. So while Murina places the subjugation of its female protagonist within a patriarchal universe, where she struggles to free herself and become independent, Olga does something similar using the Euromaidan protests, which put the main character and her family in danger and force her to pursue her dreams of a gymnastics career abroad.
From her adopted home in Switzerland (her father was a Swiss national), she observes the protests, the rising violence, the solidarity of her friends out on the street singing and trying to avoid being tear-gassed or beaten by the police, and she can do nothing. Her French is so-so, and anyway, it’s Switzerland, so some of the other Swiss gymnasts and their coaches speak Italian or German when they’re around her. She’s isolated, under a ton of pressure, much of it self-imposed, and worried about her journalist mother reporting directly from the protests and in constant danger.
And when she gets up on those uneven bars and is flying around every which way, the film manages to maintain a great deal of tension by pulling all these factors forward and keeping them there. How she copes probably provides a glimpse into the world of athletic training, especially single-person Olympic events like gymnastics. She trains, pushes herself, focuses on achieving, gets called a robot by her teammates, and ends up… well, no spoiler.
The film’s ending, and many points in between, suggest that it is more about uncertain transitions than happy conclusions. The found footage from Maidan, much of it striking and sometimes quite beautiful, helps to reinforce such transitions as it blends with Olga’s interactions, her training, her memories, her friendships.
Language too sometimes leads to uncertainty, as the exchanges tend to be fluid and quick, and are frequently multilingual (this does not come across in the subtitles). The Swiss team and the coaches use different languages at different times, some of it accented, some of it exclusionary. At one point a coach tells Olga not to speak Russian, but French, or German, or Italian. Olga speaks to her best friend Sasha in Russian, while Sasha responds in Ukrainian. Once in a while they vary things up, as when Olga emphasizes to her friend, who has been shaken by a killing on Maidan, that she should not give up and tells her this in Ukrainian. Actually, the film’s multilingualism distinguishes it from all of the others we showed and, once again, makes it most like Murina, though there the choice is only between Croatian and English.
Overall, it is a serviceable sports film, much like other sports films in which athletes try to overcome the obstacles that life throws in their way. If it weren’t for the Russian invasion of 2022, we would probably watch the film primarily in this way, since it was made in 2021 and does not relate any events past that date. In this respect, the end of the film, in which Olga is working with very young gymnasts in a public setting in Kyiv is simply a nice coda suggesting things have worked out, at least somewhat, and she has found a way to move on to the next stage in her life. Watching it that way is probably not possible now.