Reviewed at the 2013 Berlinale)
My Way to Olympia, the story of athletes prepping for the 2012 Paralympics, directed by Niko von Glasow, is not what you might expect. It is decidedly unsentimental. The film premiered at this year’s Berlinale, and Director Niko von Glasow took time out of his schedule to tell us about his own journey to the proverbial Olympia, why he chose these specific athletes and the relationship that developed between them as they progressed through the filming
Von Glasow’s matter-of-fact approach to his subjects gets our attention right from the beginning of the film when he declares he is not sure he wants to make the movie, he hates sports and he thinks the ParaOlympics are basically a dumb idea. My Way to Olympia is not a gushy story about a group of charismatic, disabled humans overcoming adversity against all odds… etc, etc. (You can just picture that big booming male “trailer voice,” right?) No, that is not what this film is about, at least not at its core.
As events unfold, it becomes an intelligent and engaging look into the hearts and souls of a group of athletes in training: Aida Dahlan, a one-armed table tennis player from Norway; bocci a champion Greg Phlychronidis from Greece, who is paralyzed from the neck down; Matt Stutzman from the USA who is a short-armed archer; one-legged swimmer Christiane Reppe from Germany and the sitting volleyball team from Rwanda.
Von Glasow can relate to them on one level. He, too, is disabled. His mother took Thalidomide and he was born with short arms, but as he says in the interview with us, he has not only learned to accept it, he is proud to be who he is.
As much as the athletes’ disabilities are important in the telling of their the story, we are distracted away from their challenges and onto another path, which takes us on von Glasow’s personal journey. As he becomes familiar with his subjects, he also finds out more about himself in the process. When von Glasow faces his dislike of athletics and begins to confront it, the story moves the lens towards the director, and we begin to witness the change.
His son appears in the film as well and we witness their bond move into another direction because of events that transpire as they are filming. Von Glasow discusses this bond and tells us that the scenes with his 14-year old son are memories that he will treasure always.
The film is shot documentary style, sometimes at arms length from the subjects and occasionally intercut with intense, intimate, slow motion closeups of the athletes that are beautiful and personal. This style represents the public, more voyeuristic view on the one hand, contrasted with a more personal view that developed between director and athletes on the other. These are relationships that unfold over time and we witness the emergence of trust. The film’s slow cuts give us time to ponder, to learn, to become familiar with each story.
There is a moment shot in their hotel room with father and son sitting on the bed for their video portrait looking boldly into our souls and hypnotizing the camera until we wonder, as compelling as it is, how we can possibly look away.
And, of course, there is always von Glasow, with his dry humor and direct, matter-of-fact approach to questioning, getting ever deeper into their psyches even as he explores his own.
Not many people are able or willing to reveal themselves this frankly, especially directors who normally show up to tell other people’s stories.
In the end, My Way to Olympia is a riveting, personal journey. The story of one gifted filmmaker getting to know four athletes and their lives as they train for the Paralympics.