Rhythmic gymnastics is one of only two Olympic sports that are female-specific. Men do not partake, though there are men’s rhythmic gymnastic competitions outside of the Olympics. (Interestingly, it was Japan that developed the sport for males) This identification of the sport with women’s and girls’ bodies and, more significantly, feminine tropes is an important subtext of Polish director Marta Prus’s documentary about the Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun. As with most sports docs, the focus is on how to become a champion, and Prus leads us through the grinding training regimen and the psychological strain of competition. Mamun’s goal is a medal in the 2016 Olympics, likely her last ever, and Prus, whether expectedly or not, captures the athlete during a particularly difficult part of her life. Though immensely talented, Mamun seems distracted and put off by the kind of effort she has been conditioned to understand by the keepers of the sport to be necessary in order to attain greatness, because she’s attained that level of greatness in the past. Maintaining it, however, is a different thing, and what we see, and what Prus insists we see, is how Mamun’s lack of focus and physical incapacities have less to do with the usual issues of aging and overwork than with a loss of will.
In most sports stories, the athlete’s problems are self-determined, but Prus implies, through careful editing, that Mamun’s difficulties are mainly the fault of Irina Viner-Usmanova, the head of the Russian rhythmic gymnastics program. An imposing, imperious older woman who wears ridiculous hats and gets uncomfortably close to her charges when making a point that could just as easily be made from across the room, Viner-Usmanova seems determined to not only make Mamun a top contender but a kind of uber femme. She’s just as strident in her insults about Mamun’s application of eyeliner as she is about the grace of her splits. There’s a theatricality about the woman’s bearing and speech that seems custom-made for a fiction film about the abject cruelty of Olympic preparation. Likewise, Mamun’s rivalry with a younger gymnast, seemingly engineered by the coaches, is something out of Hollywood, especially when you learn that Mamun is coping with the uncertainty of a father undergoing treatment for aggressive cancer. The only sunshine in her life is her boyfriend, but since he spends most of the movie off-camera his appearances add up to nothing more than brief lacunae of comfort.
Unlike Hollywood sports epics, Over the Limit must adhere to what really happened, and viewers may be either perplexed or overwhelmed by the film’s inconclusive ending. It’s as if Prus, disgusted by what she observed and perhaps guilt-ridden by her own contribution to Mamun’s suffering, just gave up. Still, it’s a devastating portrait of a young person pushed to the brink for reasons that have nothing to do with her own desires. “Just do it” in this case just doesn’t cut it.
In Russian. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
Over the Limit home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Telemark 2018