Olga (2021)

Quick synopsis: Olga (Anastasiia Budiashkina) is a 15-year-old gymnast who is forced to live in Switzerland after protests in Ukraine render it an unsafe place to live.

A lot of films can amaze you with certain things, the look, the acting, the story, then there’s one like this where you’re amazed by just how fucking insane gymnastics are. Like, seriously, watch them, how the hell do they do that? The human body is not meant to operate like that, it’s phenomenal. How do they do that without internally screaming all the time? Impressive.

Now onto the film itself. I loved the opening for this. It starts off as a standard sports drama, her training and practicing in a slightly run-down building. All ready for an inspiring underdog story. . Then when she’s having a conversation with her mother, a car smashes into them. This is very sudden, there’s no deep meaningful conversation before it, there are no hints. In a brilliant directorial choice, the camera gives no clue what’s to happen, it doesn’t telegraph it at all. It truly comes out of nowhere in a sublime piece of whiplash, both mood and literal. So, is it going to be a “child driven to perfection by the memory of her dead mother” film? Nope, not only does the mother live, the car that hits them drives into them again, and in that second you realise it’s intentional. Then you remember the mother is a journalist. A journalist investigating the corruption of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine.
This film is set in 2013-2014 and was made before the 2022 Russian invasion, but that has certainly added another level to it. I feel bad saying it improves it because then I worry that comes off as “yes, war is bad, but it made a film better so it was worth it”. The film makes clear that whilst for the west, the invasion came as a surprise. For Ukrainians, and for anybody who was looking into it, it’s been on the horizon for a long time.

Quite a few of the emotional lynchpins of the film are based around the Euromaidan protests, when Ukrainians protested because they wanted closer integration to the EU as they felt membership of it was going to help keep them safe from Russian invasion. This was at a similar time as when the Brexit debate was kicking off and lots of Russian money was funded into getting Britain out of the EU, as such weakening the impact the EU could have. Don’t worry, I’m sure those two things happening at the same time are DEFINITELY just a coincidence.

The Maidan Square footage looks real, it very well could be. And the fact that she has to watch her homeland suffer like that whilst she’s safe in another country kills her. It’s after this moment that the actress shows her skill and how great a physical performer she is (or her stunt double). Her routine is still graceful and elegant, but there’s a certain snap to it that you can tell comes from a place of anger and frustration. I’ve never really understood people saying gymnastics is a form of expression because it’s all chosen for you and it’s the same. This has shown how wrong that was.

Looking back at it, it might not have been a stunt double. Anastasiia Budiashkina is a high-level gymnast, competing in the European championships in 2016. This just seems unfair considering how talented an actress she is as well. Her physical presence is incredible, she does some incredible non-verbal acting. It’s surprising that this is listed as her first film, she has a great future ahead of her.

Speaking of great first-timers, this is Elie Grappe’s first feature-length film, but you wouldn’t guess from looking at it. It has a lot more beauty than you’d expect. There’s a scene where someone is discussing what’s happening back home, and in the space above them scenes from the town square are superimposed, so you can see the lights of hundreds of mobile phones shining above the characters like starlight in the sky. There are moments which could be normal, but Grappe decides to give them a unique look. One example is someone lighting up a cigarette, Grappe shoots it in such a way that really highlights the colours of the flame and the background.

The writing is good too. But it will break you. The only way she can compete is on a Swiss passport, which means she has to get rid of her Ukrainian one. She essentially has to give up her national identity to survive. It’s slightly heartbreaking to be honest. Especially since Olga already feels guilty. The sense that she sold out her country by surviving is one of the core concepts, and it’s sold beautifully. Especially at the end when one of her former friends swears at her for leaving.

Her friend also provides one of the most subtle terrifying moments. When they meet again at a gymnastics event, Olga realises her friends hair is shorter “you look like a boy”. The response: “it stops me getting shit at the barricades”

That’s……………….fuck.

On the subject of horrifying things: you may think you’re ready for the reveal of how bad her mothers’ injuries look. You’re not.

On the negative, there are a few moments where the momentum of the film is slightly halted. Some of her interactions with her Swiss teammates don’t seem very consistent, and a lot of the background characters are inconsequential.

Olga herself is a brilliantly written character though. A tormented and broken person who has to convey beauty and poise despite the darkness. See it just for her. This is a great character study, and an important historical viewpoint on a period we all hope will be over soon.

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