Full Frame: Olga – To My Friends Review

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Olga – To my Friends (2013)

Director: Paul-Anders Simma
Country: Finland
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. For more information please visit fullframefest.org or follow Full Frame on Twitter.

Finnish filmmaker Paul Anders Simma’s latest work is a nearly hour-long documentary on the life of Olga. We first meet her in the middle of winter, 1800km north of Moscow, in Lapland’s stunning snow landscapes. As a food storage guard (and the only woman working) for a herding collective, in the winter Olga is ensconced in snow and solitude for months on end in a cabin. Simma employs a mix of observational footage and interviews to get to know Olga and her seemingly unadorned life, with her interviews oftentimes serving as voiceovers to footage of her working. Tempered by Olga’s straightforward life and unassuming demeanour, the documentary is a quiet, even hushed, representation of a woman who strives for a simple, solitary life, precisely because of a knotty past and difficult family relations.

[…] the documentary is a quiet, even hushed, representation of a woman who strives for a simple, solitary life […]

olga-to-my-friends._2-1At film’s beginning, Olga has been at the cabin for 177 days, guarding/keeping food until herders arrive in the spring, with only a cat to keep her company most of the time. As a hint to her preference for solitude over society and family, she relays that her sister recently visited her for a while but felt relieved when she left—too much talking. In the course of the film, this brief comment will resonate, as we discover that Olga has more or less estranged herself from her family. She had grown up in an orphanage, but her mother had taken her back for a time. Further distancing her from her family is the fact that she does not speak the Sami language. When the current herding collective for whom she works closes down, she returns temporarily to Lovozero, the Sami capital in Russia and where her mother and sisters live. Simma never shows Olga’s family members, for a reason: she had inherited an apartment from her father, but her alcoholic sisters live in it instead; they also criticise her whenever they see her. Her mother also hits the bottle hard; hence her disdain for liquor. Alcoholism is, in fact, a big problem in the Sami community and Lovozero as Simma presents it reflects this crisis. Lovozero is like a post-apocalyptic space, presenting traces of what looked like a city, with remnants of cars floating in the river that passes through the town and decrepit buildings. The space thus visualises Olga’s tough family context as well as the Sami community. In contrast, her boss Nikolay for the herding collective has been a father figure to her. Significantly, he appears in the film when he visits her in the cabin in Lapland.

Admittedly, the film’s most effective passages take place in Lapland at the cabin. For example, the explicit tonal contrast between inside and outside that Simma taps into is wistful and prosaic: the whiteness of the snow against the darkness of the cabin, the outside cold and the inside warmth, the elements to contend with but also solitude, the wide expanse of snow and cold and the limited, small space of the cabin. Interior shots are nearly like portraiture, softly lit and focused on the face. And we learn the most about Olga in this setting. She takes what she does very seriously, especially since it has provided her the only kind of home and job she has ever known since a teenager. Solitude and work are her solace, her raison d’être.

[…] the explicit tonal contrast between inside and outside that Simma taps into is wistful and prosaic: the whiteness of the snow against the darkness of the cabin, the outside cold and the inside warmth, the elements to contend with but also solitude, the wide expanse of snow and cold and the limited, small space of the cabin.

She is also fearless and practical, and, as the camera reveals, a great natural storyteller when she relates her experiences of being run over by a herd, confronting a bear, or her everyday life/work. She is calm, clear, and unadorned in her phrasing, even Hemingway-esque in her terseness and metaphors. At one point, she describes her cabin as a ‘dirty sock.’ As a result, the elaborate sound design that sometimes accompanies her interviews to capture the mood of her story is somewhat misguided.

But Simma and Olga make the case that a documentary does not always have to be about big, sweeping, and/or controversial issues and social actors, with a suspenseful story structure, to be poignant.

[notification type=”star”]75/100 ~ GOOD. Simma and Olga make the case that a documentary does not always have to be about big, sweeping, and/or controversial issues and social actors, with a suspenseful story structure, to be poignant.[/notification]

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About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.