A Film’s Premiere Is Its Funeral: An Interview With Marta Prus
default, Marta Prus, photo: courtesy of Marta Prus, martaprus.jpg
Marta Prus, director of the remarkable documentary Over the Limit, talks to Culture.pl about Russia, rhythmic gymnastics, film director’s intuition, the price of success, and why a film's opening is like a burial ceremony.
Her feature-length documentary debut was screened at the world’s biggest film festivals. After the premiere at Amsterdam IDFA, Variety named Marta Prus one of the ‘10 Europeans to watch in 2018’.
In Over the Limit, the young filmmaker tells the story of Margarita Mamun, a Russian gymnast and Rio de Janeiro Olympics winner. The 70-minute documentary is about loneliness, sacrifice and the need for liberation. It paints an intimate portrait of a young girl who can only reach success in sports if she gives up everything else.
Marta Prus’s Over the Limit will have its Polish premiere at the Kraków Film Festival, where it will screen at the opening.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn: Why did you make a film about gymnastics?
Marta Prus: I trained in gymnastics from the age of 5 to 11. Gymnastics was my whole childhood and it became a part of me. Later I went to ballet school and studied contemporary dance. When the time came to go to the university, it was a choice between directing and choreography. I took the exam to enter a dance school three times but always failed.
Over the Limit – Marta Prus
BS: Does the experience of sports help you make movies?
MP: It develops your sensitivity to movement. Movies tell you a lot about characters through the way they speak, move and gesticulate. Dance and gymnastics help: they build an awareness of the body and a better understanding of movement as a film-making tool.
BS: Over the Limit is not your first take on gymnastics.
MP: As a freshman, I made a short film about rhythmic gymnastics and then another short film featuring women gymnasts. But neither attempt was satisfying. I needed something more, something that’d break through the confines of sport itself. I needed a character and a topic that’d be interesting outside a sport context. I only found those when shooting Over the Limit.
BS: Why did you pick a Russian gymnast as your protagonist?
MP: I wanted to make a film about Russian gymnasts because they’ve been unrivalled for years. On the one hand, I was inspired by rhythmic gymnastics, and on the other hand, by Russia.
BS: Why is that?
MP: Russia has held a fascination for me for a long time. I grew up with a sense of Russia being a great country with limited freedoms. In Over the Limit, I wanted to talk about what freedom there is like today.
BS: The path from gymnastics to politics seems long…
MP: In Russia, gymnastics is also important because of politics and propaganda. When a Russian athlete scores a medal, they win it for the entire nation. Their strength stands for the strength of the nation. The country builds its position and its image on strength, and sport is an important component of this image.
Besides, the Russian gymnasts are coached by Irina Viner-Usmanova. She used to be a great athlete and now she’s married to Russia’s richest man, worth something like a dozen billion dollars. When I discovered that, I thought I might be able to show contemporary Russia through the stories of gymnasts.
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BS: When did you change your mind and switch from a political film to a psychological drama?
MP: I always wanted the film to have a political subtext. But at some point, I realised that a quest for political metaphor would make me forget my protagonists. I understood that what’s moving in the tale is the story of Rita, the young gymnast who sacrifices her entire life to sports. What brought me to Russia was politics, but I eventually decided that I wanted to make a film about individual people.
BS: The world of gymnasts is very hard to infiltrate. How did you manage that?
MP: In 2013, when the Grand Prix Moscow competition in rhythmic gymnastics was taking place, the cameraman Adam Suzin and I went to Moscow hoping to meet some gymnasts. We had no press passes or tickets but we sneaked in through the back door and nobody stopped us.
When I saw Irina Viner in a fur coat and hat, I immediately thought she was a film character. Everyone around her was standing to attention. She was walking among them like an army general, larger than life.
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BS: You wanted her to be your protagonist?
MP: I knew that I needed a gymnast as a protagonist. It wouldn’t make sense to make a movie about Irina. She was too much of a personality to allow me any artistic freedom.
BS: Is that when you met Rita Mamun?
MP: I liked her at first sight. She had an emotional depth. I thought I could tell a more personal story with her, a story about a human being and her emotions rather than a story about gymnastics.
BS: Did you find it easy to get filming permission?
MP: I approached Irina Viner at the Moscow competition but she wasn’t interested in talking to me, not to mention being filmed. She told me she and the girls were leaving for a week. She wanted to brush me off, but I took it as an invitation.
A week later, I travelled to the Novogorsk training centre for Olympic athletes in a suburb of Moscow. I lied and said I had an appointment with Irina. The soldiers at the gate let me in. Never again did I manage to walk into the Novogorsk centre without a badge. Not even when we were filming.
BS: What’s it like there?
MP: It’s a very modern centre with lots of training mats, as well as cameras which help the athletes check their moves. Right in the middle of it all is Irina Viner, wielding a microphone and barking orders at her athletes.
But gymnasts in Russia aren’t serfs. They’re stars, wearing Gucci and riding in expensive cars. They’re worshipped in Russia, living a celebrity life of luxury and fame.
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BS: How did you convince Irina Viner to let you film?
MP: With perseverance. I tried to convince her at Novogorsk but she was adamant. At some point, she walked up to the woman who had let me into the training room and yelled at her. The 50-year-old woman, her eyes brimming with tears, asked me to leave because Irina was angry. As I was walking out the room, I knew then that I would make this movie.
BS: How did that happen?
MP: I attended competitions and performances to shoot. I always made a point of approaching Irina to refresh her memory and show her I really cared about making the film.
In the meantime, I found a Polish producer and then co-producers in Germany, France and Finland. Between my persistence and the international profile of the project, Irina was persuaded at last. She let me shoot, probably assured that she could stop the film if she needed to.
BS: Could she though?
MP: Uncertainty was part of the project from the very beginning. Initially, I was uncertain if I could convince the protagonists to take part. Then I was uncertain if Irina wasn’t going to throw me out. Eventually, I was uncertain the film would be accepted at festivals. I worked on something for five years that could’ve flopped at any time.
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BS: How did Irina react when she first watched Over the Limit?
MP: She first watched it at her home in Tel Aviv. A few scenes into the film, she interrupted the screening. She was upset because I’d filmed her telling a gymnast she was a piece of shit. ‘What is this? Are you trying to stir a scandal? You can’t use such words,’ she said.
I thought, we have a problem here. ‘Shit’ wasn’t the worst thing she said in my film. Over the Limit was having its world premiere at the Amsterdam festival in just three days’ time, so it was too late to edit things out.
I asked her to watch the whole film so that she could see how I didn’t intend it to cause a scandal. Irina called her friend at the Russian television company and then suggested I beep out all the swear words. I just thought this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to my film.
We kept on watching and eventually Irina stopped hearing the swear words. When it was over, she was ecstatic. She wanted the film to be screened at the Moscow festival. In Amsterdam, it was screened without any censorship.
BS: After the festival, reviewers were comparing your film to Whiplash and Black Swan…
MP: Aronofsky’s film wasn’t what inspired me. But when we were editing Over the Limit, I did think of Chazelle’s Whiplash and the parallels between my story and the story of a cruel but effective teacher.
BS: Was that film something that guided you in your work?
MP: No. When making a film, I follow my instincts. I’m unable to rely on predefined solutions. I much prefer to follow the flow of the scene and the protagonist.
BS: Over the Limit was meant to be a story about politics, but it’s not. What’s your film about?
MP: I couldn’t sum up my film in a sentence. And I don’t want others to see it the way I see it. What was it about for you?
BS: Sacrifice and the loneliness of a human being focussed on reaching a goal…
MP: I wanted to talk about the price of success, not just in sports. When you’re trying too hard to reach a goal, you lose yourself. More often than not, your success isn’t worth it.
Is it Gdynia or …Tel Aviv?
BS: What about Rita’s Olympic success? After all, she’s a star. Didn’t you want to show the celebrity fame she’s won?
MP: I did but I was unable to. I don’t really know why. I always thought that the celebrity part of Rita’s life was less important. Although Rita has a beautiful apartment and lots of money, and even though she drives a BMW she received as a gift from Putin, those things aren’t central to the story.
What really matters is the human part of the story. As she was preparing for the Olympics, Rita couldn’t be there with her dying father. I never saw her take pleasure in what she was doing. I’m more interested in Rita’s intimate world than in her career or the fame she’s won.
BS: The photography and the editing suggest this intimate approach. How did you conceive of the form of Over the Limit?
MP: Spontaneously. The cameraman Adam Suzin and I didn’t talk much about the photography before we started shooting. We both rely on intuition so much that we just went with the flow. It was the same with the editor Maciej Pawliński, who grasped this energy.
BS: Shortly after the premiere, Variety named you one of the ‘10 Europeans to watch’. Are you happy with that acknowledgement?
MP: I’m incapable of enjoying awards. They don’t make my film any better than it is, and their absence doesn’t make it any worse. My self-confidence doesn’t stem from the opinions of others.
Awards matter to the extent that they can help me make another film.
With Over the Limit, moments of happiness occurred elsewhere. The first was Irina agreeing to the project. The next was Rita texting me back to say she would feature in it. Another still was at the end of three months of editing when I saw the material and finally realised that I had a film. That made me happy.
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BS: What about the premiere?
MP: For me, a film’s premiere is its funeral.
BS: Directors like to talk about their films as though their films were children leaving the family nest…
MP: For me, it’s a funeral. The film departs, leaving me behind. The film will have a life separate from mine. As director, I’ve done all I could do. And now I need to move on.
Interview conducted in Polish, April 2018, translated by WK, April 2018
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