Lyon-born filmmaker Elie Grappe should be anxiously awaiting the world premiere of his first feature “Olga,” but like so many other filmmakers was forced to put everything on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic ground production around the world to a halt. Instead, this year his unfinished film will participate with a host of other similarly postponed projects in Locarno’s The Films After Tomorrow sidebar for films stuck in stasis, waiting to be finished when post-COVID production is once again possible.
Co-written with Raphaëlle Desplechin, “Olga” participated at Emergence 2018 and Atelier Grand Nord 2019. It is produced by Point Prod, which has, since launching in 2006, played a major part in development and production of Swiss film and TV projects, including 2016’s “Miséricorde” and last year’s “Tambour,” one of the country’s largest local box office hits. Additional financing comes from Canal Plus and RTS as well as backing by the Office Fédéral de la Culture, Cinéforom, Media, Ciclic and CNC for writing and development.
Set in 2013, the feature turns on Olga, a world-class 15-year-old Ukrainian gymnast exiled in Switzerland, working to secure a spot at the country’s National Sports Center. When the Euromaiden revolt erupts back home, anxieties mount as her family becomes involved. At the same time, Olga must working to adapt to a new country and prepare for the European Championships ahead.
While developing the project, Grappe spent several weeks in Kiev and later the Swiss Olympic center interviewing top level athletes.
“I wanted to make something about the passion of a teenager, close to what I experienced as a student, an examination in continuity with my shorts,” he explained to Variety. “But this time I wanted to confront the individual desire of my character with much more at stake.”
He also expressed a desire to use his tools as a filmmaker to take a critical look at our relationships with borders in a hyper-modern context. The film will use real, archival footage from the Euromaidan revolt to emphasize the headspace that young Olga is put in while exiled in Switzerland, only able to communicate with her family through Skype.
The demanding role of Olga will be played by newcomer Anastasiia Budiashkina, herself a Ukrainian gymnast from Lougansk, whom Grappe met while researching the screenplay.
“Nastya is incredibly true with her emotions, and has been very brave in this long adventure,” he praised the young actor for her strength under the less than ideal circumstances of a shoot divided by months of time spent in isolation. Several Swiss National Team gymnasts will also appear in the film.
A music student at the Lyon National Conservatory, Grappe’s educational influences are ever-present in his work, thus far focused on the performing arts. His secondary education was spent studying theater before he enrolled at University of Art and Design Lausanne (ECAL) to study cinema. While still enrolled, his student films screened at dozens of international festivals, and in 2015 he graduated with honors.
“Rehearsal,” shot at Grappe’s alma mater in Lyon, premiered at IDFA and demonstrated early on in his career several features which returned in later work. A musical documentary short, it unspools entirely in a cramped chorus rehearsal space and uses intimate closeups of one of the school’s choir directors to show the sometimes comedically theatrical lengths he will go to provoke the best sound he can get from the group.
A year later, Grappe’s graduation short “Suspendu” again used closeups to bring viewers into intimate spaces with the film’s subjects, once again young performing artists. This time however, the darker aspects of elite level competition were put on display, highlighting the physical and emotional toll a promising career in dance can take on adolescents.
“Suspendu” is dialogue free and, more surprising, relatively music free. Closeups of dancers’ hands, arms, legs, feet and faces are frequently accompanied by little more than the thumbing of hard-toed dance shoes crashing off the floor. It was selected to more than 60 festivals internationally.
In 2016, Grappe found the inspiration for “Olga” in another musical documentary, “Hors Scène,” co-directed with Timothée Zurbuchen. Shot just after “Suspendu,” the film follows a promising young Ukrainian violinist Yaryna and the other young musicians in her talented student orchestra.
“Olga” was 19 days into a 33-day shoot when the COVID-19 restrictions forced a stop in production, leaving two weeks of filming still to be done. Hopes are high that filming can resume this fall under safe conditions.