Elie Grappe • Director of Olga
"I wanted to explore the links between a geographical and an intimate frontier"
by Teresa Vena
- CANNES 2021: The French director presented his first feature film in the Critics’ Week and won the SACD Prize
For Olga [+see also:
interview: Elie Grappe
film profile], his first feature film, Elie Grappe, French director based in Switzerland, plunged into the universe of female gymnastics and developed a touching coming-of-age story set into the political context of the Ukrainian revolution. Presented at this year's Critics’ Week during the 74th Cannes Film Festival, the film won the SACD Prize. We talked to the director about his research for the film, his inspiration for the story and his protagonist.
Cineuropa: How did the project of the film start?
Elie Grappe: I’ve worked on several documentaries set in music academies. I myself studied at a conservatory and got to know a young Ukrainian violinist that immigrated to Switzerland in the heat of the revolution in her country. Her story and the pictures of the revolution I saw impressed me very much. I found in it the topics for my first film: the political aspect, which is a more general one, and young people’s passion, with which they follow their dreams and which pushes them to their limits, which is a more individual topic. I wanted to explore the links between a geographical and an intimate frontier. The main question was in what way would the protagonist be able to reconcile her personal desire with history.
How did you develop the main character?
I started with the testimonial of Irina, the musician, but then I spoke to a lot of other people and learned about their points of view and experiences. I also involved some professionals in the writing process, such as a sociologist, for example, but also a Ukrainian filmmaker and a politician, who all participated in the Ukrainian revolution. It was important to have people who lived that time to add their expertise to the project and to give to it the desired complexity.
Why was it important to shoot in Switzerland?
It had to be in Switzerland. First, because I’ve been living there for ten years now and I will keep living there. Yet I still have to confront the location and its particularities. Then, for my protagonist Olga, when in Switzerland she is at once safe and very far away from her country of origin, since Switzerland is outside the EU. It is really the place of neutrality. Since Olga will never have the same neutrality, it is inevitably a place of tension for her.
How did you find your main protagonist?
I saw Anastasia Budiashkina for the first time at the European championship in Bern in 2016. I was just starting with the script. At the beginning of 2017, I went to Kiev and wanted to meet with athletes, in order to give the story the most realistic details and the most authentic background possible, even though all the characters are fictitious. So I entered the gym and some approached us and were very curious. Anastasia, however, wasn't paying attention to us at all. She was completely absorbed in her training. I was immediately fascinated by her intensity. I realised I had to maintain that the best way I could and offer to all the actors the freest space possible in order to be able to transmit their energy. Anastasia used all of this space and gave to the role much more than what I hoped and had even thought of.
Why did you actually choose the field of gymnastics to tell your story?
It seemed to be a continuation of the research I’d already done with the academy of music, about the passion of young people and the extent of it. Gymnastics happens to be a sport that is at the same time very individual but also collective. It reflects what goes on with Olga. Is she in a group or is she all alone? It is a sport with a lot of sound and gestures. I was fascinated by that and wanted to film it. I was less interested in the perfect exercises but more in the looks the girls exchange, the concentration before they perform and what happens when they fall. I had the impression that in these moments, you were able to perceive their fragility but also the lightness of the athletes. It is there that you feel the humanity of the people and there that the training gets really emotional. It was very interesting for me to observe female bodies of this age range, since I think it is rarely shown in cinema.
Was it difficult to find the found footage about the revolution in Ukraine?
I discovered it during my research. I knew what happened and knew a few of these images. But I mostly discovered the events through this footage. I was fascinated by the intensity of them. Like Olga herself, I searched for them on YouTube and wanted to reconstruct this experience for the film. It was difficult to find a balance between the story and the images. They should be as real as possible, but also keep their strangeness, as they are for the protagonist as well.
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