Tuesday 19 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Life is Not a Competition, but I’m Winning

Julia Fuhr Mann's feature debut Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning—which premiered at Venice and screens on Friday as part of BFI Flare—focuses on athletes who have found both themselves and their achievements sidelined by those who write history.  This is a work which takes a novel approach to its subject; while there is nothing new in a documentary that makes use of both contemporary and archival footage—which indeed is the case in this film—there are moments in Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning when Mann takes each of these elements to create cleverly mounted hybrid scenes in which present-day athletes mingle with sportspeople from the distant past.  

Yet these technical accomplishments—all the more impressive for being achieved on a slender budget—never threaten to distract from the moving true stories that underpin the film's narrative; Mann's film is less a formal stunt than a genre-bending celebration of the marginalised.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning sees a group of contemporary athletes gather in the Olympic Stadiums of Athens and Munich, where they and Mann look to the past as they remember those who were largely robbed of their triumphs on the track.  One of the earliest cases examined here is that of the German runner Lina Radke, who at Amsterdam 1928 won the very first women's 800m Olympic final—only for most of the attention to fall on one of Radke's competitors, who had collapsed at the finish line.  

This incident not only obscured Radke's moment of victory, but appeared to vindicate father of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin's view that running was too strenuous for females; worse, the women's 800m event was subsequently removed from the Games, and would only be reinstated in 1960, which was also when the remarkable black American sprinter Wilma Rudolph—who contracted polio as a child—would win three gold medals in Rome.  Despite her superb showing at the Olympics, Rudolph's success was tempered by the situation in then-segregated Tennessee, her home state.  While both Radke and Rudolph's identities were never anything other than female, Mann also takes time to consider those athletes whose femininity has been questioned, such as the South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya.

In recent years, double Olympic champion Semenya has faced much scrutiny regarding her gender, and while she's mentioned here, Mann opts to give more space to sprinter Stella Walsh, who won Olympic medals for Poland in 1932 and 1936; following her tragic death—she was killed by armed robbers while on a shopping trip—the autopsy highlighted Walsh's intersex status, and her exceptional performances on the running track became a mere footnote in the Games' history.  Then there's the terrible case of Ugandan 800m runner Annet Negesa, whose career was effectively wrecked by an operation to reduce her testosterone levels.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning may be slightly uneven at times, but it serves an important function in spotlighting a group of athletes who have spent far too long in the shadows.

Darren Arnold