French writer-director Elie Grappe’s debut feature, “Olga,” co-written with Raphaëlle Desplechin, uses a unique lens to examine the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, the protests that rocked Kyiv and sent President Victor Yanukovych into exile.
The “Revolution of Dignity” was a powerful statement of nationality by the Ukrainian people, and while they ousted their corrupt Putin-crony president, the protests also sparked the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas by Russia, and continue to linger politically as the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine this year has shocked the globe.
With almost surgical precision, Grappe’s film poses the question, “Are sports political?” through the point of view of a Ukrainian teenage gymnast who must flee to Switzerland in order to continue her training.
Former Ukrainian national gymnastics team member Anastasiia Budiashkina takes on the title role in her first film performance, and she stars opposite another Ukrainian gymnast, Sabrina Rubtsova, as well as former Swiss national team members Caterina Barloggio and Théa Brogli, all making their acting debuts in the film.
Budiashkina capably takes on the challenging role of Olga, a tough-as-nails teen gymnast who barely flinches when she and her journalist mother Ilona (Tanya Mikhina) are nearly run off the road and killed by a mysterious attacker trying to silence Ilona. In order to stay safe and to maintain Olga’s training for the Euro Cup, Ilona sends her daughter to Switzerland to join the Swiss National Team. Though Olga is half-Swiss on her deceased father’s side, she’s faced with a tough choice — to give up her Ukrainian citizenship for Swiss in order to compete, a question that becomes even more fraught when the revolution breaks out and both her mother and her best friend Sasha (Rubtsova) are swept up in the fervor.
Grappe’s aesthetic is almost documentary-like, the actions naturalistically unfolding in front of the camera, especially in the gym scenes where we watch Olga participating in her familiar rituals and grueling training. It’s the camera angles and editing that give the film’s dramatic nature away, though Grappe incorporates a wealth of archival news footage from the events in Maidan Square, which Olga consumes on her phone and computer, feeling helpless and futile while her nearest and dearest are running into the face of danger in the name of freedom.
What is a teenage gymnast to do when “the entire future of Ukraine is at stake”? All Olga can control is her own body, pushing herself to train harder and harder, channeling her unsettled energy into physical tasks. She jogs miles at night and runs drills early in the morning alone in the gym, and while she’s physically in Switzerland — tussling with her new teammates and even connecting with her father’s family — mentally, she’s in Ukraine, constantly calling and video-chatting her mom and Sasha, worrying about their safety in the square. Under pressure, she hardens and cracks, unable to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of a revolution at home and the ribbon dancing in front of her.
When the Euro Cup event finally arrives, the distance between her reality and her loved ones’ becomes starkly apparent, and the magnitudes of what’s important for Olga become skewed and unbalanced, as she swings between emotions like she’s on the uneven bars. As Sasha uses her platform to make a statement, and Olga confronts her former coach Vasily, now on the Russian team, it becomes clear that indeed, sports are political, despite Vasily’s protestations. But are sports enough?
“Olga,” the film, would argue that although sports are an obvious statement of national identity — country and colors flying on uniforms, separating one individual from another — sports are not enough. Statements of solidarity are important, but the violent separation of a person from their homeland at a moment of crisis is too much to bear. The stress literally manifests itself in Olga’s body, the body in which she has found refuge and purpose while isolated away from home.
Grappe reflects Olga’s agitated energy in the film’s tension, and he and cinematographer Lucie Baudinaud craft a portrait of an athlete that’s gritty and realistic, more dark jogs, dim training sessions and fluorescent-lit corridors than bright podiums and moments of personal glory. Olga’s moments on the uneven bars are shot and edited spectacularly; this isn’t gymnastics like we see on TV. The film could be appropriately paired with Lauren Hadaway’s rowing thriller “The Novice” or Charlène Favier’s competitive skiing drama “Slalom”; all three are tough indie films about the dark side of women’s sports, athletes pushing their bodies in an attempt to exercise, or exorcise, something bigger.
For Olga, it’s as big as her own country’s existence, and while Grappe ultimately finds an ending that’s a bit pat, the power of the Ukrainian spirit comes through beautifully, underscoring the stakes of what is, and always will be, at hand for the country, now more than ever: identity, safety, and freedom.
“Olga” opens in NYC June 24 and Los Angeles July 8.