It’s easy to feel as if movies are frivolous in moments of intense crisis such as we find ourselves in. Even for someone like me, who is adamant about the importance of movies, of all stories… I find myself wondering how I could put my time and effort to some other more constructive use that merely writing about film. But movies — and books and music and comics and all art — are never frivolous, even the frivolous ones: they remain vitally necessary for reminding us what it means to be human and alive, and why our world is worth fighting for.
I wrote a version of that a week and a half ago, and suddenly, like a lightning bolt, comes a movie that is a more pertinent illustration of this than I ever could have imagined.
Olga is the story of a 15-year-old Ukrainian gymnast preparing to compete in the European championships, with an eye on the Olympics beyond. The year is 2013, and Olga (Anastasiia Budiashkina) has just landed in Switzerland, home country of her deceased father, at the Swiss national team’s training center. The adolescent drama that ensues is as you’d expect: Olga is the new kid, and her French isn’t great, which makes it more difficult for her to figure out how to fit in. And as an outsider hoping to land a coveted spot on the competitive roster, Olga’s arrival inevitably stirs up some animosity and resentment, especially from team captain Steffi (Caterina Barloggio).
Olga is driven — “she’s a fucking robot,” Steffi says, though the team captain doesn’t mean it as a compliment — but there is so much more distracting her than just the teenage soap opera she is living. While she is in Switzerland training, everything back home is in upheaval. “It’s the revolution, Olga,” her best friend, Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova), tells her excitedly in a video call.
Olga is a fictional character, and her story is invented, but it is set among real, momentous events. What Sasha is talking about is the beginning of what turned into the enormous, months-long protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, the pro-Europe, let’s-join-the-EU uprising that would eventually see the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country and the ushering in of a more democratic Ukraine. (The Netflix documentary Winter on Fire is about this event, often called Euromaidan.)
This is where Olga becomes something truly special, a fusion of the personal and the political that is poignant and pointed. French director Elie Grappe, who cowrote the script with Raphaëlle Desplechin, blends real footage of the Maidan occupation — which soon turns violent, with police attacking peaceful protestors — with Olga’s taciturn turmoil as she tries to focus on training while also feeling guilty about being so far from home and worrying about her mother (Tanya Mikhina), a journalist covering the uprising. One remarkable scene, low key but zinging with power, sees Olga spending Christmas with her father’s Swiss parents, whom she barely knows, and finds herself defending her mother against charges of having abandoned her daughter for her work (even though Olga herself has accused her mother of that!) and explaining what the protests are about.
The scene cements Olga’s soft metaphor of its young, quiet protagonist as an accidental stand-in for her nation itself, straddling two identities, one of which doesn’t understand the other. Grappe, with his auspicious feature debut, a joint French-Swiss-Ukrainian production, casts Olga as a proud but often isolated figure, which feels incredibly wretched and affecting in light of the horrors now unfolding in Ukraine. (Star Budiashkina, a former member of the Ukraine national gymnastics team, has escaped to Poland from Kharkiv in the wake of the recent Russian invasion.)
Olga was completed before the recent Russian invasion. It had a successful festival run last year, winning the Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers screenplay award at International Critics’ Week at 2021’s Cannes Film Festival, among other festival nods, and it was Switzerland’s entry for the Best International Feature Film for the upcoming Oscars, a decision that would have been made many months ago. So it’s another accident that Olga is also a portrait of the spirit of Ukraine that we see being tested in the worst way right now, not only in Olga’s tenacity but in the hope that flowers in the wake of Euromaidan. Olga’s final scene, set in 2020, is tinged with the faintest hint that history is not done with Ukraine yet, but mostly it’s a burst of sunny optimism that is a punch in the gut now. At another time, a movie like this might feel like it’s putting that final fillip on what is past: Yes, it was a difficult time full of violence and grief, but then they all lived happily ever. But this story is far from over.