Thursday, June 23, 2022

Olga, a Ukrainian Story from Switzerland

After the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, we almost forget the thuggishness of Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed president, who aspired to be Putin’s puppet. However, this young gymnast will not forget it anytime soon. Following the attempted assassination of her journalist-mother, she will be forced into exile, for her own protection, in Elie Grappe’s Olga, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Olga’s late father was Swiss, so Olga’s rattled mother arranges for her temporary residence in the neutral nation. Olga also happens to be a very talented gymnast, so the coach of the Swiss junior team is happy to have her. Initially, she is a bit rusty, but she quickly rises to the top of the team. However, she will be distracted by news from Ukraine.

Before she left, her mother complained about the Ukrainian public’s apathy. Then, the Maidan demonstrations start. At first, they give Olga hope, but when Yanukovych unleashes his violent Berkut shock troops, Olga fears for her mother and her friends, who are often present at the protests. She believes she should be there, especially as some of her friends start to resent her absence.

Much like the Latvian film
January, Olga incorporates real footage from Maidan Square, alongside the dramatic scenes featuring the titular Ukrainian. For additional authenticity, Olga and her main teammates, both in Ukraine and Switzerland, are portrayed by real-life gymnasts. They have the athletic chops, but they are also pretty good thesps, especially Anastasia Budiashkina, who does excellent work conveying the guilt and confusion of simultaneously dealing with the pressure of competition, teen angst, and national trauma.

It is a lot for one teen to handle. Nevertheless, many viewers might essentially agree with Olga’s friend Sasha that what was happening at Maidan Square is the more important story. Nevertheless, Grappe and co-screenwriter Raphaelle Desplechin capture the pain of the exile experience from a keenly humanistic perspective.

You cannot get much more international than this Swiss take on recent events in Ukraine (predating the 2022 invasion), so it was fittingly chosen to be Switzerland’s International Film submission for the most recent Oscars. It would have been a worthier choice than many of the shortlisted films, so it is nice to see it getting a timely theatrical release. It is a small film that is hardly the definitive statement on Maidan, but it is honest and engaging. Recommended gymnastics fans and Ukraine supporters,
Olga opens tomorrow (6/24) in New York, at the Quad.