Gwendolyn Leick is many things: a writer, an anthropologist and a mother. A woman in her mid-sixties who moved to the UK forty years ago, lured here by the British Museum and cosmopolitan way of life. A cancer patient who, at the age of 52, took up weightlifting, and has since become a European and three times world champion. Ruth Kaaserer’s latest documentary, GWENDOLYN, follows Leick as she prepares for her next big event – the European weightlifting championship in Azerbaijan – and it’s easy to see why.
Gwendolyn’s life is compartmentalised into three sections – family, weightlifting, and cancer. As the documentary progresses, however, the lines slowly begin to blur, each aspect bleeding together until they become impossible to separate. This subtle, understated approach is mirrored in the way Kaaserer documents Gwendolyn’s day-to-day existence. There is no narration, no forced scenarios or intrusive interviewers with pointed questions. Kaaserer offers us a window into Gwendolyn’s life, and through it we see just that – the remarkable, the regular, and everything inbetween.
This naturalistic, occasionally distant approach risks stripping the film of its intimacy, but Gwendolyn’s many unique relationships with the men in her life – most notably her son, Joseph, and trainer, Pat – form an emotional core that continues to resonate long after the credits roll. This is aided, in no small part, by Serafin Spitzer’s excellent cinematography, which often stands in beautifully stark contrast to the depths of relationships being displayed onscreen.
It’s this interplay between proximity and distance that serves to keep the film feeling at once intimate but indirect. We are watching Gwendolyn’s story, there’s no doubt about it, but like any good tale, the themes are universal enough that we can all, on some level, relate to Gwendolyn’s story.
GWENDOLYN offers a fascinating insight into the life of an equally fascinating woman, but also a wider examination of life after diagnosis – and it’s this, perhaps, that is Kaaserer’s greatest achievement. Despite the extraordinary person being documented, Gwendolyn’s situation remains constantly relatable. In her, we see thousands of other men and women from across the country fighting to overcome the constraints put upon them – whether it be from age, disease, or a combination of both.