A Film a Week - Gwendolyn

previously published on Cineuropa
The protagonist of Ruth Kaaserer’s new documentary, Gwendolyn, which is avant-premiering at the Viennale before its official world premiere at DOK Leipzig, Gwendolyn Leick, is a woman in her sixties. She is an Austrian ex-pat living in London, a retired anthropologist, a part-time writer, a cancer survivor and an athlete. She started competing in weightlifting at the age of 52, rose to claim the titles of European and World Champion in the under-52kg category, and is now on the path to recovery after her painful illness and has her sights firmly set on the throne. Closely monitored by her coach, Pat, supported by her seemingly younger Ivorian husband Charlie and occasionally visited by family members, she tests her limits day after day.
Gwendolyn is Kaaserer’s second feature-length documentary, after the 2014 title Tough Cookies, and both of them examine the topic of women and their struggle through physically demanding, so-called “male”, sports. Tough Cookies followed three American female boxers, both amateurs and professionals, their life on the fringes of society, and their soul-searching through the often brutal sport. Gwendolyn Leick is a different type of protagonist, though: she is at peace with herself, she seems fulfilled in her life, and she does not have to prove anything to anyone. Her fight is not against her competitors, but against her illness, which lurks just around the corner, as well as her inner weakness. She is the prototype of a strong woman and the main reason why the film works outside of the sports and illness-beating niches.
Shot on location in Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Azerbaijan, where the Master’s Competition final took place, the film follows Gwendolyn’s athletic and personal journey, but also gives an insight into the mind of this unusual woman and her unique life path. Kaaserer and her director of photography, Serafin Spitzer, prefer to stay close to the protagonist at her home, at Pat’s gym and at the championships she attends, focusing on her facial expression and muscle tension, but they also give her some space to breathe during the more contemplative parts, such as her trips into nature and the time she spends on the balcony, suggesting that there is more to it than merely the components of physical pain and a feeling of accomplishment thanks to the sport results. Weightlifting might be a bit of an “on the nose” metaphor for the daily weight pulling called life, but in Gwendolyn, it works because of its protagonist, portrayed as a complete, integral human being.

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