Roads to Olympia premieres at DIFF

by Kayode Faniyi

Some five years after work began on it, Roads to Olympia finally premiered at the Durban International Film Festival in 2019. Directed by first-time director Ramazan Nanayev, the film follows the separate lives of three young athletes in three countries—Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia—who have the Olympics Games in their sights. They must however swim against significant societal anticurrents in their quest for self-justification, and Roads to Olympia is the story of this confrontation. Getting it to this point has been arduous but Nanayev’s commitment to social change has not doured. I exchanged emails with him to discuss his film and other related matters. The conversation has of course been lightly edited for clarity, and where necessary, brevity.

How difficult was it telling these three stories in one film?

It is very difficult to make a movie. It takes a village. In the case of Roads To Olympia, it took the whole world to make. Making a movie in three (+) countries, in three languages and weaving different stories in one as a first and low budget film is close to impossible. Many people told us that, and they were right—theoretically speaking.

We kept moving forward despite the odds stacked against us. After 5 years, the film is finished and we are very proud of it. How did we do it? Only thanks to a global community of artists, who believed in the message of this film. We are in debt to them and hope the film will reap the benefits of our hard work so we can repay it.

Each story is complex in its own right and deserves its own movie. Despite that, I believed all three stories had to be told in one film. The film weaves a story of three young athletes, in different parts of the world, who face adversity not only in their respective sports but in their personal lives as well. These stories show the human tragedy of aspiring athletes challenged by oppression and intolerance as they fight their way to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. It's the story of the world and a universal issue we all face.

I can go on and on about this; it’s the roads of making the Roads of Olympia.

These stories are the same but also vastly different, yes?

Yes. Despite the characters facing homophobia in Russia, women's oppression in Saudi Arabia and poverty (race and class) in Brazil, all of them essentially face the same challenge—to seek an opportunity to compete on an equal playing level field which the Olympic Games represent. They face the battle of being, and staying true to, oneself in the face of oppression and adversity.

You seem to have trifurcated your own personal experiences into these three characters…

The stories are inspired by my own athletics career and my friends' lives whose biggest obstacles were not the competition they faced but the systematic and cultural inequality that still exists in the world. Growing up, I competed in a myriad of sports, including wrestling and the decathlon, with the hope of one day competing in the Olympic Games. As a Circassian immigrant—an indigenous Muslim culture based in the North Caucasus of Russia, I also experienced various forms of discrimination throughout my life. I wanted to tell personal stories that still are very important today.

I was born into a Muslim family and witnessed inequality that exists between men and women in many Islamic cultures. My sister was treated differently than I was in my family and that wasn't okay. This inspired Muna's story. With the recent lifting of bans on women drivers, we celebrate a small victory in Saudi Arabia. But the activists who fought for those rights remain jailed. Saudi Arabian women still cannot work, marry, study, travel, seek healthcare or make formal decisions without a male guardian's consent.

When I was in college, my best friend, an athlete like myself, struggled to come to terms with his gayness. His story inspired Roma's journey. Russian laws banning the promotion of what they call "nontraditional" sexual relations encourage hate crimes towards the LGBTQ+ community and often go unpunished. On my last trip to Moscow during the football World Cup, I felt disheartened to hear many stories of hopeless activists who live in fear of being killed. People in Chechnya, North Caucasus are being rounded up, placed into concentration camps and brutally beaten, sometimes to death.

Growing up in Russia after the reconstruction inspired me to write Manuel’s story. My family struggled to find financial stability. Many kids and I lived in marginalized neighborhoods that had limited access to opportunities, much like Brazil’s favelas. The long history of race and class relations in Brazil restricts access to opportunity and an improved standard of living for the poor, and yet they must still contend with widespread violence. Recent election results indicate that social reform and equality is far from becoming a reality.

What impresses me about ROADS TO OLYMPIA is how it resists the desirable ending. The characters don't necessarily achieve their larger aims but achieve intimate victories: families are drawn closer, friendships blossom, the original Olympic spirit of play is emphasised. Why did you choose this sort of muted approach over the big triumphant ending?

I wanted to tell real human stories of millions of people around the world that we don't often hear. In the film, our heroes may not attain the dreams they are set out to achieve but in return they gain something much more. Sometimes there is more triumph in failure and loss than in victory.

Roma, himself gay, is one of the public faces of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ in the film. Is his private anguish a worthy sacrifice for his public acceptance? Millions of people still live in the closet for fear of not being accepted by their loved ones and the society they live in. There are still over 70 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal, and, in some places, punishable by death. In today's day and age that is unacceptable. Roma's story is unique and different to any story I have seen told on a screen. It's a story of a privileged gay person who lives a comfortable life until the people he loves are being punished by the same system he benefits from. He made a painful choice and has to live with the consequences. Is it worthy to live a lie? Of course not. Is it okay to lose everything you worked so hard for because of your sexual identity? Of course not. In today's world people are still forced to make that choice and that is horrifying.

The film also takes an interesting approach to presenting duplicity. All the parents believe that they are doing the right thing for their children. Roma is the very thing he condemns on TV. Manuel is pushed to stealing. Muna physically assaults her mother…

Life is complex, and I wanted to tell stories that reflect many facets of characters, choices, and circumstances. It's very far from black and white. (PS. Muna accidentally pushes her mom off her feet by defending herself, I wouldn't say she physically assaulted her).

Am I right to say ROADS TO OLYMPIA is agitprop?

Great artists for centuries have used many forms of art as a way of questioning the status quo and tackling injustices around the world. Roads To Olympia has a message and it's for the viewer to decide how to feel about it. How optimistic are you about the social impact of film? How much does film have to contribute to vanquishing repression?

Films, culture and stories have changed the world for the better and have contributed in building fair and just societies around the globe. Roads to Olympia is a film that shows real stories from diverse perspectives and it's up to the viewers to take action if they think the events portrayed in the film are not okay. How do you want to see R20 affect the very specific worlds out of which these stories came and the world at large? I'm guessing you're looking forward to a world where the example of the old man who eventually bails Muna out of a difficult situation is rampant and not exceptional.

I believe the world is only getting better. However, the fight for equality and just world for all is ongoing. With Roads to Olympia, we hope to spread a message of compassion and inspire much needed action toward building more inclusive and fair societies.

What's next after Roads to Olympia?

We are moving forward to securing regional premieres in South Africa, Asia, North America and Europe. We are also building a global social good campaign for equality in sports and hope the film will inspire masses to aid organizations that are tackling these injustices.