The Will to Fly is a wonderful documentary which this reviewer walked into without having one iota of the premise, and who quite happily walked out enthralled. This is one of those films you can think of after weeks have passed and feel a smile creep onto your face of reminisced enjoyment. The fact that the characters and production are all Australian made makes it that much more enjoyable. It’s an impressive sports documentary debut feature from Katie Bender and Leo Baker.
Like all the best documentaries, the film makers have tapped in on a cultural niche almost unheard of and found a vast well of character, tension and tremendous drama. In this case it is the sport of Freestyle Skiing. You know, the one from the Winter Olympics where they do flips and tricks off the ski ramps. The heroine of the documentary is Lydia Lassila, the Victorian born winner of the 2010 sporting achievement of the year and gold medal Olympian. Lydia was a high level gymnast as a child, who became transfixed by the athleticism and excitement of the skills of the male freestyle skiers. She wanted to ‘jump like the boys’. This is a strong feminist feature, but not one of comparing boys and girls. Instead it is one of breaking barriers of expectations in the ‘traditional’ home and on the slopes. This is about a girl who simply kicks arse. The film introduces Lydia to the viewer through the eyes of her sporting contemporaries and her family. I had no idea Australian women had dominated the sport up until so recently. Alisa Camplin and Jacqui Cooper complete a triumvirate of aerial skiing Australian champions. Together with family and other sporting peers the film constructs a portrait of a young and ballsy go getter. In one interview Jacqui, regarded as one of the sport’s best ever skiers, tells of how a teenage Lydia berated her for taking so long to learn a simple move.
I must admit I know very little about any winter sports, and I’m guessing most Aussies would be in the same boat. The film supplements any ignorance with excellent fast paced contextualising of facts, figures and the intricacies of the sports without any threat of boredom. By the end of the film I was nearly on my feet. I’ve never felt stillness in a cinema where one collective breath was held by an audience before the final climatic jump. The editors didn’t mind throwing fuel on that fire by muting these dizzying jumps and blaring the crowd’s applause upon successful landings. The tension is all too real. And with good reason, this is a very high risk sport. There are many heartbreaking moments for not only Lydia but her fellow Aussie girls, and the timing would be unbelievable if they were fiction. The scream a person makes when they rupture their ACL is more than discomforting.
As mentioned earlier, this is a feminist feature. With both the women’s cricket and soccer teams outstripping the men’s teams last year, this film will add a place within that dialogue of the importance of encouraging and funding female athletes. Lydia’s very strong familial bond with her Greek family translates into her own loving family with reversed gender roles. A devoted mother determined to be one of the greats is supported by her husband to achieve her dreams. Again the film chooses not to compare the sexes but focuses on the not so well known trials that being a mother can have at the highest sporting level.
The Will to Fly has everything needed of a great documentary. After a compelling reliving of the three highly successful Aussie sporting girls’ high highs and low lows the film changes pace in its second half. It focuses on the now remaining veteran Lydia, with her quest to transcend being a footnote as one of the world’s best, and truly becoming a groundbreaker and legend of the sport. It is here that the film’s tension really becomes palpable and escalates towards the one critical all important jump and whether Lydia has the guts and technical skill to pull it off.
The Will to Fly is in cinemas from 10th March through Binding Films.