SFF Exclusive Review: Marta Prus’ Over the Limit15 June 2018
This piece is part of our coverage of the Sydney Film Festival.
Over the Limit is not like other sports documentaries. It doesn’t make you envy the prowess of Ayrton Senna (Senna), nor does it channel the underdog optimism of William Gates and Arthur Agee (Hoop Dreams), nor does it recognise the beauty in a pursuit for perfection (The Endless Summer). Instead, Over the Limit analyses rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun as she undertakes a stygian journey towards mental breakdown. Her chosen artform is painful; her platform is beyond daunting. Who would have thought the Olympic Games could feel so depraved?
Even more depraved than the Games, though, are Mamun’s coaches, who dabble in a classic good cop/bad cop dynamic. Amina Zaripova, her assistant coach, is motherly, caring, compassionately licking Mamun’s professional sport-induced wounds. Head coach, Irina Viner, on the other hand, is dispassionate, cruel and at one point literally dehumanises Mamun: “You are not a person—you are an athlete”, she responds to Mamun’s pleas for respect.
Of course, it all pays off in the end with Mamun’s record-setting gold medal, which comes days before the passing of Mamun’s father from a lengthy battle with cancer and her soon-thereafter retirement from the sport. So maybe it doesn’t pay off. Director Marta Prus certainly doesn’t think so. After devoting so much screen time to the training, we don’t even see the final performance that won the gold. Because this is not a film about victory. This is a film about being crushed. This is a film about the ever-deadening passion of an all-time great rhythmic gymnast.
Prus explores the sport with unerring commitment to her subject’s misery. The documentary is a painful insight into the world of professional sport, using long, slow takes to try to penetrate the psychology of Mamun. The exercise is successful, if a little forced. With shots through door-cracks and curtains, Prus attempts to efface the documentarian’s presence and deliver us a gaze into the private moments of Margarita Mamun when the cameras are off. The problem is, the cameras aren’t off and it all feels a little staged. This fly-on-the-wall approach tries so hard that you can’t help but imagine how long each shot took to set up; all the while Prus calling, “Yes, yes, just like that!” or “Can you do that again? This time with a little more heartbreak.” Yes, this is reality TV for sadists.
For all its forced expression, though, Over the Limit does effectively craft a portrait of pain, suffering, humiliation and athletic excellence. Mamun’s body is, as the title suggests, pushed to the limit and her mind even further. Prus’s documentary experiments boldly with its form and shows a promising future in documentary filmmaking.