‘Olga’ Director Elie Grappe On Balancing Gymnastics And Geopolitics In Switzerland’s Oscar Submission – Deadline Virtual Screening Series

French-born filmmaker Elie Grappe moved to Switzerland 10 years ago and is now representing his adopted home in the International Feature Oscar race with Olga, a movie that itself focuses on a character living between two worlds. Olga debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the SACD prize in the Critics’ Week section, and follows a young Ukrainian gymnast who is forced to leave her native country in order to train in Switzerland when her mother’s work as a journalist endangers their lives during the 2014 Euromaidan protests.

Grappe, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay — and who just this week signed with CAA — joined us to discuss Olga after Deadline’s virtual screening of the film (see video above).

The first-time feature helmer said he was inspired to tell this story by a Ukrainian violinist that he met during his time at the Conservatory of Music in Lyon. The musician had moved to Switzerland from Ukraine just before the beginning of Euromaidan and Grappe was “very touched by how upset she was and how she described to me the images of the revolution and the way they penetrated her life and affected her own practice of violin. It allowed me at that time to find the confrontation between the different aspects I wanted to work on for my first feature.”

He focused in the film on “the passion of a teenager, an individual desire,” but also confronting that with “a wider stake, a geopolitical one. I didn’t know Ukraine at that time, but as I did some documentaries before, I was sure I had to be as specific as possible on this subject to make it accessible.”

In terms of how this impacted Grappe and what he learned from the experience of making Olga, the filmmaker said, “I was basically wondering myself political questions at that time about what does it mean to do art in Switzerland when you’re French — and some close people from my family are all very engaged in what they do and they know the political dimension of their work — and so I was following this from abroad, but I thought that I didn’t know exactly why this story touched me this way. The more I was learning from it, the more I was completely moved by this situation and the way that in this specific event people were coming from so different part of politics. For me, it was really about exile even if it stands on this specific situation.”

Ultimately, the most important question was “to ask to my character how is she going to reconcile a very strong desire she has, and the course of history.”

There is a scene early in the film that takes the viewer by surprise, and acts as the impetus for Olga to leave Ukraine. Grappe said it was “very important to have this shock in the beginning of the movie because it’s also this political violence that she experienced — and after, we enter another movie, we enter the sport movie with sports stakes for the character and she goes through this coming into a new team and trying to adapt and trying to reach the goal that she wants. Then, suddenly after 30 minutes, we come back to the political reality. For me, it was really important that she’s not only shocked by a situation very far away from where she’s training, but also that she realizes little by little how gymnastics itself is political, and how actually she can’t go out from this dimension because everything is political.”

Olga, said Grappe, “is not the movie of someone who wanted to do the revolution. It’s the movie of someone who can’t be where it’s happening and who only wanted to be a gymnast.”

So how does it feel to be the official Oscar submission from one’s adopted country? Said Grappe, “It makes me very proud… I’m living in Vevey. It’s a very small town, but it’s actually where Chaplin spent the end of his life, so I know that Switzerland is full of surprises like this… I’m not going to leave Switzerland, it’s now my place, I have so many relatives, I have so many friends and I have my family of cinema here. It was such a great honor that the movie could be chosen like this.”

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