To land on two feet, while home burns

PUSHED to the limits of choice: Olga (Anastasiia Budiashkina) in Elie Grappe’s film ‘Olga’, at the European Film Festival. Photograph courtesy

WHEN YOUR BODY says: ‘This much and no further!’ and your dreams are within arms’ reach but your land is burning down, what do you do? The story of Olga (played by Anastasiia Budiashkina) is a complicated one which offers a provocative understanding of nationhood and a prescient reflection on the Ukraine. It is on this year’s European Film Festival, which is designed as hybrid, offering limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 13 and 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.

Just 15 years old, Olga, who is a high-end gymnast, has the Olympic Games in her professional cross hairs. The daughter of a Kyiv-based journalist at the time of the so-called Revolution of Dignity of 2014, she is torn by her roots. Her mother’s work is too dangerous for her sense of sanctuary and her late father was Swiss. On the brink of change in her land, she finds herself learning French and training with strangers who see her as the outsider who doesn’t understand their culture. All she must do is focus on a complicated landing manoeuvre on the parallel bars.

Is this even feasible? With a determined frozen face which closes out her personal circumstances from the well-meaning or the curious, Olga has difficulty warming to her new peers. She works like a machine even in the face of calamitous news. Until she cannot. It takes the burning keg of her best friend Sasha’s political voice to make her rethink where she belongs in the world.

Cast with real footage from the Ukrainian revolution in question, as its background, Olga is a compelling film that will fascinate you with its gymnastic displays and references to the fierce life of the gymnast, fuelled as it is by one-tracked intent, the desire for perfection and a constant engagement with all the functioning bits of the body. It also sits well on the quandaries in which its young protagonist is placed. She’s often lonely and without words in a world of resin to prevent slipping, cardio exercises and difficult tricks.

It’s unusual for a young performer capable of the kind of nuances which Budiashkina manifests as Olga to have sporting talents of her own. She, alongside several other performers in this work, are indeed high-end gymnasts in their own capacity. The characters they represent are tightly written, well-directed and credibly performed, yielding a piece which is as meaningful to any 15-year-old with dreams as it is to the grand unfolding of the Ukrainian saga.   

Olga is directed by Elie Grappe and features a cast headed by Caterina Barloggio, Théa Brogli, Anastasiia Budiashkina, Jérôme Martin, Aleksandr Mavrits, Tanya Mikhina, Alicia Onomor, Sabrina Rubtsova, Philippe Schuler and Lou Steffen. Written by Raphaëlle Desplechin and Elie Grappe, it is produced by Tom Dercourt, Jean-Marc Fröhle and features creative input by Pierre Desprats (music) Lucie Baudinaud (cinematography), Suzana Pedro (editing), Elie Grappe, Muriel Imbach and Nina Moser (casting) and Pascal Baillods and Ivan Niclass (production design). In Ukrainian, Swiss, French and Russian with English subtitles, it is part of the 9thEuropean Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.

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