"Over the Limit", the full‑length documentary by Marta Prus, portraying the world of Russian gymnasts, will have its world premiere in few days at IDFA . It was already quite a hot topic within the international film milieu, even though it hasn’t yet been made. Just before its first public screening we look back to production process of the film.

This project, which the director has been working on for several years, proved to be an incredible challenge both in the artistic, as well as in production‑related respects and the interesting fact is that it has aroused considerable interest and is shown at the most important pitching sessions in the world.The Warsaw‑based firm, Telemark (Maciej Kubicki and Anna Kępińska), is its producer.

It started with a dream. Marta Prus, a student of direction in the Łódź Film School at the time, wished to make a graduation film about rhythmic gymnastics which had fascinated her since she was a child. She chose Russia – with no doubt, a cradle of talents within this discipline. The problems started already at the first documentation when it became clear that it is a very closed world. During a few visits in Russia, along with her cameraman Adam Suzin, the main characters emerged and the idea for the film was outlined. The first protagonist was Rita, a very successful teenager who captivated the director at first sight. She stood out from the other gymnasts, and it was in her that Marta saw a story to be told. Simultaneously, Marta became fascinated by the person of Irina, a charismatic coach, president of the Russian Rhythmic Gymnastics Federation, and wife of one of Russia’s oligarchs, a co‑owner of Gazprom. Her presence provided an opportunity to present a wider sociopolitical context, even though ultimately, it was not something Marta wanted to make her film about. At the forefront were relationships between the characters and the sports tension they face every day. However, difficulties in reaching the protagonists started to grow. ‘It turned out that entrance to the training area in Novogorsk is almost impossible – it’s a guarded area, surrounded by barbed wire. Somewhat miraculously, we managed to go through the formal checks and we entered inside. It all looked more like a command center rather than a sports center. Persuading both the coach and the gymnasts was also a challenge. Everybody was saying that I bit off more than I could chew, but the fact that it was difficult was the very thing that mobilized me’, the director remembers the documentation period.

Though Marta started working on her own by somewhat guerrilla means and with no financial backup, it was known from the beginning that without an apt and experienced producer, the project would have no chance. Maciej Kubicki, from Telemark, came to her aid. He had gotten to know the director at various previous projects. They started by applying for a grant from the Polish Film Institute (PISF). Marta had earlier obtained a scholarship for the screenplay, but it was not possible to receive funds for development, nor for production. The producer decided to risk it nonetheless and take on the production with their own money.

The screenplay concept that Marta envisioned turned out to be a true challenge. It was supposed to include a year of preparations ending with the battle for medals at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It imposed a very strict timeline and at the same time provided for a certain production rigor. As the topic was becoming more and more international, the natural course of action was to find a foreign co‑producer. The project attracted Hans Robert Eisenhauer, a German producer from Ventana Films, and, more importantly, a commissioning editor of many years for ARTE, who had just left the network and started an independent career looking for interesting projects.

It was he who was the first to open doors to foreign connections. Marta got him interested in her idea while participating in the Zagreb Dox Festival with a different short documentary. For the next stage of conversations and arrangements, Maciej went to La Rochelle to the Sunny Side of the Doc film market, where Eisenhauer and he decided on collaboration. The hope was to gain TVP, so that through the bilateral agreement between Polish Television and ARTE, the queue for funding could be shortened. In the meantime, ARTE temporarily suspended the agreement with TVP, but the German co‑producer already had in mind a different, quite simple solution to this deadlock – he convinced his friend, producer and filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki to get involved in the project and engage ARTE through the Finnish YLE which had an analogous agreement. ‘Winning Mika Kaurismäki turned out to be important in yet another respect: he had lived and worked for some time in Brazil, and it was Brazil, or strictly speaking the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, that we envisioned as the key moment for the film’, adds Maciej Kubicki. ‘His support would facilitate this stage of production.

The fate of the project became really dynamic.’ Simultaneously, the producer and the director began thinking about a communication strategy for the film. The first phase was the Ex Oriente workshop – three consultation sessions ending with a presentation at the East European Forum in Prague. The workshop was considered important at this stage of production, as it enabled, most of all, a look at the project with someone else’s eyes, a possibility to talk and confront it with others, and at the same time, a knowledge of how to present the project – how to speak about its strengths and weaknesses. At Ex Oriente, they also met three people who contributed a lot of good energy and support to the project: Peter Jäger – former chief and founder of Autlook Films, Iikka Vehkalahti – commissioning editor of many years for YLE, and the British producer Mike Lerner. ‘Those three people treated me like a filmmaker, not like a market product’, remembers Marta who is not a fan of carrying out marketing activities before a film is made.

From the director’s point of view, it entailed huge stress resulting from growing expectations, especially since the project had been very well received from the beginning. ‘Some people considered what we showed the  as the film, while for me it was still a project, a sort of process. It brought incredible pressure to me. I wasn’t used to conversations that, ultimately, are aimed at selling the product which the film is. Praises don’t work in a motivating way if you’re fully aware of what you’re doing. During the meetings with the decision makers I switched off because I didn’t want to listen to compliments. For me, the biggest gain from all those meetings and visits was that the relationship with my producer grew stronger’, the director adds.

Finally, the first funding for the production from PISF was obtained. At the same time the project qualified for presentation during two of the most important events in the documentary industry: Hot Docs Forum and MeetMarket in Sheffield. Dorota Lech, the Hot Docs Forum director, remembers the project very well. ‘We were immediately drawn to Over the Limit. Marta’s previous training as a gymnast and her keen eye give the project precision and grace that is not often found in films at early submission. Her access combined with her storytelling skills gave us confidence and we were thrilled to see it succeed at the pitch.’ Carolina Lidin, responsible for the project selection at MeetMarket, equally had no doubts with respect to the selection: ‘This was very case‑in‑point concerning this project. The sports universe and the competition set‑up in itself is already a great starting point for drama, but the final convincing element was, without a doubt, the clip that precisely encapsulated this drama, introduced the girls and gave promise to a strong emotional journey. We felt confident that we were in the hands of a real filmmaker who will get close to the characters and tell a larger story through their universe’, Lidin says. Both pitching sessions opened a perspective to build up a market presence within the Anglo‑Saxon world, as well as an opportunity to present the project before decision-makers from Israel, Australia, and Japan. Thanks to participation in the aforementioned pitching sessions, they met Chris White from P.O.V. – a prestigious documentary film slot in PBS. The conversations about possible collaboration took place in New York City, where the producer and the director came to present their project at the IFP Film Week – and they are still going on. In the meantime, the key moment of the film took place – the Olympic Games in Rio. Though it turned out to be a success for the main character who unexpectedly won the gold medal, it was unfortunately a failure for the filmmakers – they were not allowed to film during the competition, nor were they admitted to the Olympic Village with a camera.

This turn of events forced yet another concept tweak that the director is currentl yworking on in the editing studio. The film editor is Maciej Pawliński (Golden Lion and Golden Eagle awards), with great experience in feature films, which holds the promise of a storytelling style not often encountered in documentaries. They are in the home stretch now and just got admitted to the Dok Incubator workshop, where they will work on a rough‑cut with outstanding film editors. They are already thinking about the dream festival premiere. After the presentation at Docs to go! at the Krakow Film Festival, a member of the Sundance selection committee showed interest in their project. The makers are also thinking bout a submission for the Berlinale festival. The most important thing is, however, to deliver the finished film, which in the whole sea of difficulties they have gone through, may not turn out to be that simple. International co‑productions entail a complicated system of pre‑release previews. ‘Everybody has learnt a lot during the filmmaking process. Nobody knew what lay ahead, and nobody expected the project would be so hard and demanding for all the collaborators. If we’d known that from the start, probably the film would never been made in the way it is now and it would remain one of the director’s dreams’, Maciej Kubicki sums it up. ‘Today, I can hardly imagine a documentary film that would be more of a challenge. Yet, looking back, I have a feeling that if I were to do it again, I would do it.’ ‘It was all new for me, and I’m still anxious about how it’s going to end’, Marta Prus adds. ‘I realize I’m a novice director and I‘m making a difficult film, hence I’m grateful to everyone who believed in my dreams rather than in a sure, documented subject.’ 

The case study was made in March 2017, at the last stage of production of the film. 

Katarzyna Wilk, "Focus on Poland" Magazine, issue 5 (1/2017)