Q&A with Gwendolyn Leick

Q&A of Gwendolyn with the protagonist, Gwendolyn Leick, hosted by Loretta Gandolfi as part of the Austrian Focus Selection.

Heading glacially down the stairs, you can’t help but not warm to Gwendolyn immediately, radiating the same dignified composure and graciousness as you see in the film. Loretta Gandolfi introduces the Q&A, discussing the importance of the Austrian focus and its growing exposure in the European film industry, and the hands fly up immediately to praise Leick and ask about her experience of having her life documented.

LG: So I shall begin with a simple question, asking how Ruth Kasserer the director found you?

GL: Ruth, who regrets not being here as she is in New York, she has made a film called Tough Cookies which followed three American female boxes in their training and in their competitions, and wanted to make another film, but this time about an older woman still in sports. She was looking for someone who’d fit that bill, and somebody who is the daughter of a friend of mine and Austrian, said ‘oh well I saw at the flat of one of my friends living in Berlin, a newspaper cutting that showed a weightlifter of a certain age’, and that was me! And said oh I know this person, and that is how Ruth got in touch. Quite a few people over the ages have come to the gym and wanted to do some documentary and nothing has ever happened, and so I said yes on this occasion thinking nothing would happen of it. But when she came over, I could see straight away that this was a much more serious proposition and I said well this sounds interesting but let me see your film first. So she sent a DVD, and I watched it and thought it was an extraordinary film, it was so good and I said yes I will completely trust you, we’ll do it. So she committed to it, she found the funding. It took a while to get funding from Austria, and it was then filmed over a year with several visits.

Audience Q: Clearly when you’re at the championships, you seem slightly awkward with with idea of being on the stage, which you refer to towards the end of the film. Given that you spent a year having a camera pointed at you; in all sorts of domestic, fairly private situations as well as at the championships, I just wondered how you managed to relax into being the the subject and being watched so closely by someone with a camera and the crew?

GL: Well, it helped that it was a very small crew, there was only one cameraman, and the camera was mainly handheld, and one sound person. And we spent a lot of time together, the director the cameraman, and me in the house. We ate together, we spent a lot of time together, and again it was a matter of trust, so they had to trust
me that I took that seriously and wouldn’t mess them around or be complicated. I trusted them, and I never saw any footage. And you can see my face is not the face I used to have, and I wondered how that uneven and compromised face would come across, again it was a matter of trust. The relaxing in front of the camera, that wasn’t that difficult except in training and in the championships. That was the one time where that was really hard. I asked them before ‘please do not come to the warm up room’, where we train and settle our nerves before we go out, ‘please don’t I am so nervous I am a such a wreck, and having the camera thrust in my face is too much’.  But she said, ‘but we need that, it’s so important to the film, we need that and we need to communicate your nerves’. So alright, but I said ‘it might be too much, but I may just have to overcome that inquisitive camera presence before.’ That was the only time when it really irked, but otherwise it was fine.

LG: I read that there was a mention of the affect about when women start to occupy a space that is normally associated with male-strength, whether its boxing and lifting, she defines women as doing an act of ‘border-crossing’ and then defined you also as an adventurer. I wondered if you could respond to this kind of comment in the activity that you took on in your career? And of course in accepting to be a part of this film.

GL: The gender side of it never really bothered me, maybe a matter of luck and upbringing but, this was never a particular challenge, and equally, when I came to that Bethnal Green gym, there were a lot of women there training, and in fact the women were better weightlifters than the men were in that particular gym. And their technique was superior! The popular image of weightlifting is enormous men weighing more than 100 kilos and putting up hundreds of kilos over their head and so on, but the actual finesse and beauty of it is the lower weight classes. But you have to rely on technique and not just on brute strength. Then it becomes really
elegant, and I thought that was the same of the women who lifted that. You’ve got to be fast and be economical with your bodily movement, so it was not an all-male environment by any means, although for a lot of sporting history; weightlifting has been a ‘male-sport’, and women I think have only competed since 1997
internationally. But since then, I probably think there are more women competing now than men, or try to!

Audience Q: I’m very interested about the way you found yourself into Pat’s gym. For a woman looking to lose a few pounds and tone up a little bit, it seems the most unlikely gym to find yourself in, given the choices that are available?

GL: Because I lived round the corner! (Everyone chuckles). Because my Irish friend lived with me at the time and she always signed up for classes. And there were weight training classes offered in that gym, which was run by Hackney Council as an adult education institution. So it wasn’t really advertised as weight lifting, but as
weight training, so we signed up for these classes. But I saw as we were doing small exercises with dumbbells, that there were other women doing series of Olympic weightlifting. It was entirely by chance, and we had no idea it was this famous, long-established power-lifting and weightlifting gym. She thought it was just a class to get fit!

LG: Your background is in academia as you were an anthropologist, you’ve been giving lectures and so on. Between the academic intellectual commitment, and the physical training, and from that deciding to want to train for world championships. We’re not just seeing a film about a woman who does something that is an incredible achievement, what made you want to
jump into doing it at a competitive level?

GL: Well Pat thought I was up for it! I was naive, I thought let’s have a go, let’s try. I started around 2002, something like that. For two years we only did weight training because he wanted me to get the requisite strength before we did any of the Olympic movements. Then, he said why don’t you do the local Southern Masters, and then we went to the British Masters and that went alright, sort of! I was only just beginning to get an idea of what weightlifting was about. It was luck too, as the field gets quite small at a certain age group, there are not that many people up for it! So if you make the qualifier, and if you manage to persuade the judges that is a good, then may be in for a medal you see. I couldn’t train all the time now, I train everyday still as now that I am retired, I have the luxury of choice to train, I trained this morning before I came here! I was working at the university, and I would head straight from a lecture
to the gym to train and that was enough.

LG: I’ve been wondering, since you saw the film for the first time – did you see film first with family, on your own or with people strictly in the film? This film premiered last year at the Vienalle in Vienna, so when you saw it first, how did you react to the depiction to the realities of your relationships with your husband, with your son? Ruth said she had never seen a relationship like that of you and your son, and it was very poetic. And then also with your trainer – how did you see that?

GL: The very first time I saw it was in the privacy of production company as there may have been something I absolutely hated, and might have insisted on being cut out. They sat there, rather anxiously either side of me – the producer, the filmmaker
and the cameraman, and my face coming up so big; it’s really disconcerting to see your face on the screen, and now I quite like it! The first time it is horrifying, and I thought nobody will want to see that face. This is just awkward! It’s as bad as when you first hear your voice recorded. Although I was horrified, I mean when you look in the mirror you always scrutinise yourself and all that, to see how other people saw me I could recognise that despite my extreme discomfort, it was a very good film and won me over. Fortunately, it’s not just me, there are other faces. My son’s handsome face, Pat is brilliant and has an incredible screen-presence, he’s really good and Charlie and all the others! The first screening was a shock. Having become completely inspired by her sincere, open presence and affable nature, I thought it best to venture forward a question that would pick out a moment for her that was intimately significant in her life across her spectrum of achievements.

Elle Haywood: May I first say that you are quite an incredible person, and your screen presence was so complete, and brilliant to watch. Being academically well versed and having your sporting achievements, was there a particular moment in your life that you felt completely proud, and you personally felt entirely happy.

GL: The one moment where I felt really, really proud of myself, and really really clever, was when I gave birth to my first son. It sounds like such a banal thing, millions of people do it all the time, but when I saw this little human being, and I had made that – I was so smug! And I thought gosh that is clever!! I had created a viable little human being, and nothing has ever come anywhere near. I think every woman feels that, we are very clever.

Audience Q: Was it difficult to encourage your other family and friends to be involved in the filming or were they really happy to go along with your decision to want to be filmed?

GL: Yes, my London family they were up for it, it was easy. With the Austrian screenings it was more difficult. My sister was in Austria at the time and she thought it was all ridiculous and tried to subvert it as much as possible. So there was a bit of sibling rivalry going on! She had had a documentary done about her, my sister is a Sanskrit scholar and she had an Austrian documentary done about her. It’s not like your film and she thought it was rather silly. The London family were fine.

Audience Q: Pat – is that what he is really like all the time? He came across as such a charismatic, charming and yet gentle man. Particularly the scene of the pair of you looking at the mountains, it was so profound – your relationship seems so beautiful.

GL: Thank you, I’m glad you noticed that. Pat and I have a very close relationship, and he has been one of the most important people in my life over the past, nearly 20 years now. We have travelled a lot together, as he says in the film, and he’s like that all the time and to each other, we are very close. He is very well-read, people  sometimes say in the scene where we are reading the New York review looks staged, it’s not! I give Pat my old copies of the review and he has an incredible knowledge of history, military history especially. He is naturally interesting and completely original, unusual person. He was so marvellous in the film! None of the lines were scripted, it was all spontaneous. We had to come up with our own lines our own costumes. Ruth would make suggestions, but she didn’t always say anything, it was just life sometimes. It’s the art of the editor to frame it all. It is a film about love, which I think is true. The love of the sport, the love to one’s body, a love for adventure.

Transcribed by Elle Haywood for Take One

One thought on “Q&A with Gwendolyn Leick”

  1. Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia: The Invention Of The City was a very well written account of the burials at Ur, which i have studied for a number of years. Your interview showed the delightful personality Ms Leick offers, and makes it understandable how her writing is so engaging. She is able to put one in the scene as it were, in a way no other scholarly research has done for me. Thanks to Ms Leick!

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