Reviews Short Documentary

Girls Got Golds (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Miku Sato

Writer: Miku Sato

Cast: Carolina de Horst, Katrien de Horst, Bente Aalders, Lucie Bower, Irene Cuperus, Sanna Domingos, Ying Ying Egyedi, Lotte van der Laan, Rosephine Nederhorst, Vienna Plugge, Kisako Posthuma, Sanne van der Zwan

Running time: 10mins

Film criticism often struggles to detach itself from elitism. I’m no saint when it comes to that. To engage with a story, a lot of the time I find myself primed to discount a film when it is shot in low resolution, or has echoing tin-can-audio, or has a janky final cut. It won’t matter about the merit of the narrative – its emotional clout, or its political prescience – because without those superficial boxes being checked, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach the point where those threads pay off.

To a certain extent, that is a relevant critique. When you are telling a story you believe in, you need to ensure your story is accessible and engaging to as wide an audience as possible. But in many cases, writing off a film on this basis boils down to being prejudiced against its creator because they do not have the nicest camera, access to high-range sound equipment, pricey editing software, or an even more expensive film school diploma.

In Girls Got Golds, Miku Sato serves up a timely reminder that wherever possible, I ought to avoid judging books by their proverbial covers. Full disclosure, my gut instinct going into the first couple of minutes of this was that I was about to write another hatchet piece.

The film centres around the life of Elka de Levie – a Jewish Dutch gymnast who was among the first cohort of women to compete at an Olympic Games. Amsterdam 1928 not only saw her and her team allowed to compete, though; they went on to win gold. As the story is recounted from Elka’s perspective, you might expect us to be shown a montage of archive footage from the Games – or at least a photographic sequence. But instead, the director makes what appears an odd decision to show someone doing the washing up.

The shot is flat, naturally lit – and seemingly without colour correction – leaving us with a relatively sterile image composition. It doesn’t look good in the conventional sense – it doesn’t engage the eye, or help highlight particular aspects of the scene for us to focus on. It is the back of someone’s head, while they wipe yesterday’s dinner from their crockery; fierce yet dull white light obscuring any of their features we might glimpse over the shoulder.

Spoiled as I am by some of the remarkable composition I witness within Indy Film Library’s submissions, it is an image which I am hard-wired to think is absurd. Especially when the narrator is talking about such an incredible story. Bear with me though.

The story of Elka de Levie – and many of her fellow athletes – takes a gut-wrenching turn, not long after her finest hour at the Olympics. The following years see the rise of fascism, and the perpetration of the Holocaust by Nazi Germany. Elka and her young family are forced into hiding to survive – as the persecution of Jews reaches the Netherlands.

The narrator suddenly breaks down, unable to continue without taking a moment to compose herself. It is then that it becomes clear who is telling this story. Elka de Levie’s surviving family in the Netherlands.

Carolina de Horst, Elka’s granddaughter, has been reading the story – and this is a detail which honestly changes everything. Even the cynical, jaded creature that I am was stopped in my tracks by the authentic tremors of grief in Carolina’s voice – while Elka and her daughters survived, so many around them did not, including several of her fellow gymnasts. Suddenly this is not just a story, but history, and its consequences are made concrete.

Snark as I might about the mundanity and the flatness of the earlier shots, then, what I now assume was footage of Carolina doing the washing up is given a new, incredible context. Even those dullest moments of daily human life are an unbelievable feat. The triumphs of Elka’s legacy are that Carolina exists to do anything at all. Having taken those moments for granted, demanded something more from this film earlier, I suddenly found myself rather sheepishly regretting my readiness to write it off as underwhelming – when it is arguably the most beautiful and wondrous part of continued life on Earth in a cold and often hostile universe: its sheer mathematic improbability.

Is it still jarring when Miku Sato edits photographs over these placid images so that the edges of the screen are live-action, but the centre is a cartoon? Yes. Is the jaunty middle segment, when athletes in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium recreate Elka’s original gymnastics routine, a bit underwhelming by modern standards, and a bit tonally peculiar? Perhaps. But the miracle is that any one of these artists is alive, and free to create these moments of cinema, to tell this story. It is a fitting way to think about celebrating a life which was – even amid billions of other mathematical anomalies – truly remarkable.

This doesn’t mean all the film’s shortcomings should be glossed over. But it does mean they aren’t what ultimately matters. The most compelling part of it is this slow-burning confounding of our cinematic expectations. It is the construction of a bait and switch, where we scoff in our armchairs at the supposedly amateurish displays of image construction or editing, before being put righteously back in our places by a smart and sensitive piece of storytelling. That is something for which Miku Sato has to be heartily commended.

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