Watching Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun perform her hoop routine is nothing short of mesmerising. Here is the skill of an elite athlete on full display, her body moving with an intensity and grace that only comes from years of extreme training and dedication. Some might call it magical. Irina Viner, the head coach of Mamun’s team, is not one of them. What’s her response to the performance?
What’s particularly shocking about it is that “total crap” may be the closest thing Mamun gets to a compliment in Marta Prus’s Over the Limit, an intense, disturbing, fly-on-the-wall documentary. Casting an unflinching eye on Mamun’s physical and emotional trials in the pursuit of excellence, the film makes the nightmarish experiences of Black Swan‘s Nina Sayers, or Suspiria‘s Susie Bannion look like dream vacations.
Mamun takes the insults without offering a word in defence. She has no choice. The 2016 Rio Olympics are only a few months away, and Viner has the final say on who receives the honour to compete. A quick look at the ground, or the flinching of her lower lip are the only signs that Mamun is hurting. Later, when instructor Amina Zaripova asks why she’s upset with the abuse thrown her way, Mamun responds that she’s only human. “You’re not a human being, you’re an athlete” comes the savage response.
Prus’s documentary acts as a counter-argument to this degenerating mentality. Not through interviews, or narrative framing, or selective editing. All she has to do is point the camera at Mamun’s trainers. The confidence with which they talk about “training her like a dog”, or tell her she should “go to hell” while cinematographer Adam Suzin stands a few feet away is so astounding it would feel heavy-handed were this a work of fiction. It speaks to a greater issue in professional sports – to a contorted and vicious power structure. Watching Over the Limit, audiences might better understand why a team doctor would think they’d get away with abusing their patients under the guise of professional care, or why Russian athletes would so readily take part in a doping program, despite the risks it posed.
As her story unfolds, the toll of Mamun’s exhaustive dedication becomes increasingly clear. While she pushes her body to its limits again and again, only to be called a failure, her father lies at home, sick with cancer. When she tries to call home, she is scolded for letting emotion skew her priorities, but when she’s about to take the stage, Viner whispers a reminder that he will soon be dead.
Such manipulation is wicked, disgusting, and worst of all, routine. Undoubtedly that is why Prus, a former gymnast herself, chose to make the documentary. Yet still, in these moments, the film remains impartial, never letting emotion dictate its presentation of the truth.
It’s a great achievement, considering just how vile things get, and one that makes Over the Limit such a worthwhile documentary even for those who don’t have a particular interest in the sport.
Over the Limit screens March 9th
as part of ACMI’s Documentary Showcase.