• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (3/6/2022)

(Reviews of Olga; and The Camera Is Ours: Britain's Women Documentary Makers)


It's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is a thing again. However, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.


OLGA.


Having been previewed earlier in the year to raise funds for Ukrainian war charities, Swiss debutant Elie Grappe's Olga gets a cinematic release over the weekend that the country will discover its footballing destiny in a World Cup play-off against Wales. We're forever being told that sport and politics should not mix. But they always have, as this insight into the world of elite gymnastics reveals.


While preparing at the Olympic Centre at Kyiv in 2013, 15 year-old Olga (Anastasia Budiashkina) and her best friend, Sasha (Sabrina Rubtsova), are refining their uneven bars routines. Her coach, Vassily (Aleksandr Mavrits) encourages her to practice the Jaeger grip prior to the European Championships. But an attack on the car of her journalist mother, Ilona (Tanya Mikhina) - who is an outspoken opponent of pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych - results in Olga being sent to stay with her late father's relations in Switzerland.


In order to compete for the Swiss at the Euros, Olga needs to apply for full citizenship and Ilona is hesitant about her losing her Ukrainian connection. However, Olga is having problems settling in with her new teammates at the Magglingen training facility, particularly Steffi the captain (Caterina Barloggio) and Juliette (Alicia Onomor), who is the only Black member of the squad. Despite sneaking into the gym for after-hours sessions, Olga is also struggling with the Jaeger and keeps measuring her length on the dismount mat. Her mood is not helped by her coach insisting that she plays safe and uses the traditional Tkatchev grip.


Speaking in the Russo-Ukrainian surzhyk dialect, Sasha tells her over Skype that their coach had been headhunted by the Russians and Olga gets defensive when her friend asks if she will ever return to Kyiv. However, news footage of the repression of protests in Maidan Square makes Olga feel a long way from home and concerned for her mother's safety. Following a changing-room dust-up with Steffi, Olga wishes she was participating in the `Revolution of Dignity' with Sasha. An uncomfortable Christmas with her disapproving grandfather (Roger Jendly) only makes things worse.


Back in training, Olga gets cross with Ilona for paying more attention to the pro-democracy cause than her and has to demand that her mother signs her passport application so she can become Swiss. As she is now eligible to compete, Zoé (Théa Brogli) feels hard done by when Olga gets her place. But she stays late night to help her with her floor exercise and they agree that becoming a gymnast demands a good deal of sacrifice, as well as dedication. However, Zoé has had enough and Olga is frustrated at losing the only friend she has made since leaving Kyiv.


On arriving in Stuttgart for the Euros, Sasha seeks out Olga at the training centre and tells her about the protests. They are pleased to see each other, but now seem to come from different worlds. During the night, Sasha comes to Olga's room because she's seem footage of Ilona being loaded into an ambulance. Olga calls Kyiv, but can't get any information about her mother's condition.


The next day, Olga bumps into Vassily on her way into the hall and wrests herself away from his embrace. She tells him never to speak to her again because he made the wrong choice. In the arena, Sasha pulls out of her vault attempt to shout `Free Ukraine!' with a clenched fist. Boos ring out as she is led away and the announcer apologises for the incident, as Olga gets ready to do her uneven bars routine. However, she remains impassive, as the nails the dismount and avoids the excited congratulations of her teammates.


When she finally reaches Ilona, Olga is horrified by the state of her face after she had been beaten in the square. However, she has her own medical crisis to cope with, as she has damaged her foot and the doctor advises her to forget about the Olympics in order to avoid doing lasting damage. Forced to watch the others training, Olga has a facetime row with Sasha, when she accuses her of having it easy after she has just been traumatised by throwing a Molotov cocktail at a cop.


Impetuously, Olga packs a bag and cycles through the snow to the nearby town. She tracks down Zoé and asks her to help her get to the airport so she can go home. However, the coach finds her and calms her down. He promises to fix her foot and get her to the Olympics. But Olga isn't convinced and goes to the darkened gym and puts herself through a punishing series of leaps that exacerbate her injury.


As she spins out of her bar routine, the action comes forward to 2020, as Olga is coaching youngsters in Kyiv and doing her bit to help her country stand on its own feet. It's not made clear whether she went to the Games or not, but Olga explains in voiceover that Yanukovych had fled, the war had broken out in the Donbass and the Crimea had been annexed by the time she got home. As she concludes, the threat from the East is ever present, but Ukrainians have learned to live with it.


Notwithstanding the rushed and rather muddled melodrama that concludes proceedings, this is a thoughtful study of the travails of a professional athlete that is made all the more poignant by the fact that Olga is an exiled Ukrainian. Given the recent revelations about the abuse of underage female gymnasts, it's perhaps wise that Grappe (whose inspiration came from a Ukrainian violinist he encountered while making a documentary) opted to focus on the impact of the Maidan episode and the resentment of the Swiss relations who feel that Ilona lured their son away to an early grave.


As a former gymnast, Anastasia Budiashkina capably handles the punishing physical aspect of achieving grace under pressure. However, she also conveys the psychological strain placed on a fiercely ambitious and focussed girl who has the courage to leave home to realise her dream and then has to watch helplessly from a distance as her mother and best friend become caught up in the unrest tearing her homeland apart.


Grappe and editor Suzana Pedro make astute use of phones, laptops and social media sites to incorporate footage of the Euromaidan protests. They also shape Lucie Baudinaud's up-close images of Budiashkina's exertions to capture the power of her twists and loops on the uneven bars. The nocturnal gymnasium sequences are particularly effective, as they highlight how alone Olga is, as she tries to hone her skills away from the prying eyes of teammates willing her to fail.


The locker-room resentment lacks conviction, however, as Grappe and co-scenarist Raphaëlle Desplechin fail to flesh out the Swiss characters, with the result that the tensions feel half-hearted and formulaic. The nightmares that Olga experiences, including one in which she wakes in a burning bedroom, similarly feel contrived. As do the testy phone calls with Ilona, who is always too busy following a story or fighting the cause to consider the effect her choices are having on a child whose single-mindedness she shares.


The Russian invasion has made the Maidan battle cry, `for our freedom, we will give body and soul', all the more sobering. It's also hard to watch the film without recalling that Tanya Mikhina hails from Mariupol and that Budiashkina, who is a Russian speaker from Luhansk, had to flee to Poland from Kharkiv shortly after the unprovoked invasion. Let's hope they remain safe and can return home soon.


THE CAMERA IS OURS: BRITAIN'S WOMEN DOCUMENTARY MAKERS.


The Independent Cinema Office and the BFI have teamed to circulate a selection of shorts under the title, The Camera Is Ours: Britain's Women Documentary Makers. Linked by introductory captions, this programme makes a worthy companion to the excellent BFI compilation, Early Women Filmmakers, 1911-1940. Moreover, it's refreshingly free from the mansplaining that made Mark Cousins's Women Make Film: A New Road Through Cinema (2019) such a disappointment and such a treat.


First up is Marion Grierson's Beside the Seaside (1935), which was commissioned by Paul Rotha for the Strand Film Company. As the sister of John Grierson, the Scot who had coined the term `documentary' and defined it as `the creative treatment of actuality', Marion and her sister, Ruby, were always under scrutiny for evidence of fraternal influence. But this is much breezier than many of the items that John had been supervising for the Empire Marketing Board and the GPO Film Unit (for which Marion would make Around the Village Green, in 1937).


Indeed, with its brisk cutting, this 23-minute odyssey visually conveys the bustle of a summer's day every bit as effectively as W.H. Auden's commentary. Snippets of eavesdropped conversation can be heard, as passengers board trains from London to such coastal destinations as Brighton, Bognor and Bournemouth. Many can't get into the water fast enough, but the pace slows after lunch, as a brass band serenades those dozing in deckchairs. There will be fewer takers these days, however, for the Broadstairs minstrel show that struggles to raise a smile with its feeble jokes.


The more energetic attend tea dances, while darkness is the signal for everyone to flock to the funfairs and amusement arcades in order to ride merry-go-rounds and rollercoasters or bump along on the dodgems. Buoyed along by the brass stylings of the 43rd Light Infantry Band, the action has an impressionistic feel, as Grierson uses slow-motion, animation, canted angles, wipe dissolves and rhythmic cutting to capture the British at play some nine decades ago.


In some ways, this harks back to avant-garde items like Jean Vigo's À Propos de Nice (1930). But it also anticipates the travelogues produced in the 1950s by British Transport Films under Edgar Anstey. Few women prospered at BTF, although a notable exception was Gloria Sachs, who might have found a way into this anthology. Indeed, with her BTF excursions Travelling Sixties (1960) and Hostellers (1965) both being available to view for free on the BFI Player - along with the Anstey-produced The Site in the Sea (1970) - it's surprising that room couldn't be found for Sachs on the BFI's complementary disc, The Camera Is Ours, which also contains Evelyn Spice's Behind the Scenes (1938), Mary Field's 4 and 20 Fit Girls (1940), Muriel Box's The English Inn (1941), Jill Craigie's Children of the Ruins (1948) and Margaret Thomson's The Troubled Mind (1954).


Middle sister Ruby Grierson had come to film after a stint in teaching. She once told her brother: `The trouble with you is that you look at things as though they were in a goldfish bowl. I'm going to break your goldfish bowl.' The first cracks came through her uncredited contribution to Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton's Housing Problems (1935) and her collaboration with Paul Rotha on People of Britain (1936), an agit-prop piece that earned the nickname, `The Peace Film'. But, while she made an impression with Today We Live (1937, with Ralph Bond) and Cargo For Ardrossan (1939), she left her mark with They Also Serve (1940).


Made by Basil Wright's Realist Film Unit for the Ministry of Information, the action follows Mrs Anderson, a middle-aged woman, as she keeps house around a husband on the night shift and a daughter on days. With her son in uniform, she donates his fishing rod to the child of a neighbour who has been evacuated to the country. Moreover, when a telegram comes for Mrs Bennett, she takes responsibility for opening it and hurries to the nearest phone box to call the factory so that the woman can meet the soldier husband who has landed some unexpected leave.


In a typical act of generosity, she picks some peas from her garden so that the couple can have a nice dinner. She also makes a packed lunch for her daughter and gives her husband a bag rub before he goes to sleep. As she works, she contemplates the chores she has to do and almost has to be scolded into having a cup of tea in the garden before her husband heads back to work. Even alone in bed at night, her mind races, as she prays for her son and thanks the stars that her spouse (who evidently served in the Great War) is safe at home this time round.


Dad is played by the familiar character actor Hal Gordon, but Mum goes uncredited (and remains unrecognised 82 years on). Yet this is somehow fitting in a tribute to the ordinary housewives who are helping Britain win the war by keeping their families going. It may seem a patronising message today, but Grierson's admiration for women such as Mrs Bennett is as sincere as the gratitude for their courage and help in the film's closing caption.


The war seems very far away in the shots of the carless suburban street photographed by A.E. Jeakins. But it would claim Grierson a few months later, when she was lost at sea after a German torpedo had hit the SS City of Benares, while she was making a film about a party of evacuated children sailing to Canada.


Known as `Budge', Brigid Cooper had been acclaimed for Children of the City (1944), a study of delinquency in Dundee that was made with her producer husband Donald Alexander. He takes the same credit on Birth-Day (1945), a curious treatise on pregnancy that combines anatomical animations with enacted consultations involving an army medical officer (James Smith Campbell) and Gunner McBain (Tom Macguire), a Scotsman who is concerned about the wife (Molly Weir) preparing to give birth in a single room in a Glasgow tenement.


Cooper completed the 22-minute with the assistance of Mary Beales, as they cut between the camp surgery and the daily routine of Mrs McBain. Carrying her first baby, she isn't sure what to expect, as she frets about the neighbour's unruly brood taking over their shared kitchen and scoffs at the dangerously ignorant gossip she hears at the laundry where she works that drinking stout can change the colour of a baby's skin. On the advice of her husband, she seeks out the doctors and nurses who can treat her for free after the government introduced reforms to address the country's alarming infant mortality rates.


A lecture by a male professor on this issue is rather leadenly presented. But Cooper allows Wolfgang Suschitzky's camera to contrast the dingy clutter of the tenement with the clean, fresh spaces of the ante-natal clinic and the maternity ward. It all seems a world away from the documentaries that would emerge later in the year to boost the free at source services on offer through the new National Health Service.


A similar sense of looking towards a better future informs Kay Mander's Homes For the People (1945). Produced by Basic Film (the company she had set up with husband R.K. Neilson-Baxter) and sponsored by the left-leaning Daily Herald newspaper, this was essentially a party political broadcast on behalf of Clement Attlee's Labour Party. However, Mander (a onetime card-carrying Communist who had become the first woman admitted to the ACT technicians' union) was more determined to give women a voice to ensure that any reforms passed by Westminster would have practical benefits in households across the country.


Having learned that little has been done to improve living conditions since slum clearance was permitted under the Health Act of August 1848, we hear from five women who have very specific requests for the incoming administration. Mrs Tasker has spent the last decade in the top-floor flat in a block on Herbrand Street in Holborn. With two sons in one bedroom and her husband and the baby in another, Mrs Tasker has been forced to turn the living area into a kitchen. She makes light of trundling a pram down several flights of stairs and sharing a scullery on the landing. But she'd rather have more space for the kids to play and Mrs Pendlebury feels much the same way in a suburban house in Feltham that looks roomy until you see how badly designed it is. As she washes at the sink, she complains about the lack of storage, the poor lighting and the problem of getting a pram through the front door with no hall.


In Derby, Mrs Wilson has little good to say about 18 John Street, as she dries the dishes beside a sink without a draining board. Her son is working age and he has to stay with his grandmother when her husband is home on leave. Her daughters have problems on the dark stairs and they have to play indoors because the street is too dangerous. No one likes having the loo at the bottom of the garden, while the lack of back access means that binmen and coalmen have to traipse through the house in their muddy boots.


While the setting of the Northamptonshire village of Moreton Pinkney couldn't be more idyllic, Mrs Marriott has to carry water from the village pump. As she irons, she bemoans the lack of sanitation and the paucity of the cupboard space. Meanwhile, in the Welsh mining village of Pontygwaith, Mrs Collingbourne does some darning as she reveals that she and her ailing husband share her three-up, three-down cottage on a sloping hill street with her brother and nephew.


She concedes she's better off than many, but wishes she had an indoor privy and a kitchen tap, as having to go to a wall tap in the rain is inconvenient. Washday is the worst of all, however, as she has to lug heavy pots of water and the bathtub. She's philosophical about things, but the picture painted of daily life for millions of women across Britain is dismaying and should remind us of how readily we now take such amenities for granted.


The politicking of the closing section is fascinating, as male and female narrators call on men and women to use the means in their power to tell the government what they want and see that they get it. As the music becomes more strident, the call to demand decent living conditions makes more sense and leaves us wondering why we are still waiting 80 years later for what some might call levelling up.


After having produced several shorts of equal technical accomplishment and thematic potency and even won a BAFTA for La Famille Martin (1948), Mander must have pondered herself what else she needed to do in order to make the transition to feature directing. But she was told flatly by Ealing chief Michael Balcon that women would never be able to control male film crews. Her 50-odd credits suggest otherwise, although she decided to quit directing in 1957 and spent the remainder of her illustrious career attending to the continuity of projects as varied as Terence Young's From Russia With Love (1963), François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Ken Russell's Tommy (1975).


The implicit chauvinism of the society Mander depicted was still alive and doing nowt about the house when Sarah Erulkar directed Something Nice to Eat in 1967. The only colour item on the slate, this 21-minute puff for the Gas Council sits uneasily with what has come before, as we're informed that `cooking is a kind of loving'. However, the fact that an Kolkata-born Jewish woman like Erulkar could make a career as a director (over 80 documentaries in 40+ years) within the painfully patriarchal British film industry is worth proclaiming from the rooftops.


It's a shame she's so poorly represented on the BFI Player and that she's upstaged here by a soufflé and supermodel Jean Shrimpton (and a fish tank), when she would have been better served by either the BAFTA-winning Picture to Post (1969) or another Gas Council short, The Air My Enemy (1971), which won a prize at the Venice Film Festival. Wolfgang Suschitsky's photography is a treat, while there's something very modish about Johnny Hawksworth's score. But how nice it would have been to have heard Mrs Pendlebury's views on cooking with garlic and herbs in a dream kitchen.


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