Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina: a beautifully made if insubstantial short documentary

Glen MacKay, “Life in the Day of Aliya Mustafina” (2020)

Since 2009 when she joined the Russian senior national women’s gymnastics team, Aliya Mustafina has become a much loved representative of women’s gymnastics across the world for her quiet and stoic demeanour and her determination to continue in gymnastics for as long as she loves the sport in spite of many setbacks, injuries and the trend towards more athleticism and acrobatic stunts, often at the expense of execution, precision and grace, in the sport. The overwhelming dominance of US gymnast Simone Biles, not to mention Biles’ own competition in the US itself – competition such as Morgan Hurd, Kara Eaker, Sunisa Lee and, making a comeback, Chelsie Memmel – overshadows Mustafina and the rest of the Russian national team in a sport increasingly crowded with countries all vying for prestige in women’s gymnastics and making large investments in that sport. So it is a surprise then that film-maker Glen Mackay has seen fit to make a somewhat dream-like and poetic documentary about Mustafina as she goes about her life in 2020, training for the Tokyo Olympic Games, postponed to 2021, which are very likely to be Mustafina’s last significant competition before retirement.

Mustafina is certainly not the first gymnast still in training who is a mother – Oksana Chusovitina has been performing at world and Olympic championship level since 1992 to earn money to pay for her son’s leukaemia treatment, and Chellsie Memmel is also a mother – and many other female gymnasts like Mustafina have also carved out long careers in the sport since the early 1990s. Watching the documentary, I must admit I did not see much in the sparse and rather banal portrayal of Mustafina’s daily routine at the sports training centre in Moscow where she lives from Monday to Friday. A major part of the reason is that the documentary focuses completely on Mustafina and her voice-over description of her day from dawn to dusk, and that description does not say a great deal. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown that was in place in Moscow at the time of filming may have had a great deal to do with the sparse bare-bones portrayal: when Mustafina trains in the gym, there is no-one else (not even her coach) there. Even when she gets Saturday afternoon off and goes to her parents’ home to look after her daughter Alisa (born 2017), her parents are absent. The film says nothing about Mustafina’s ex-husband and Alisa’s father Alexey Zaitsev.

While the film is beautifully made, the camera clearly in love with Mustafina’s soulful eyes, angelic profile and alabaster skin, it does not tell us much about Mustafina’s life and the sacrifices she has had to make to continue in the sport. There is nothing about what conflicts or criticisms Mustafina must have faced in continuing in gymnastics as a single mother. Mustafina moves about in a Moscow miraculously emptied of people and traffic as she goes for her daily afternoon run. We hear no opinions about Mustafina and what she has achieved for gymnastics and Russian gymnastics in particular from her coaches, her parents, Zaitsev or other people in the gymnastics community. Nor do we know what the general public thinks about gymnastics and Mustafina. All we know is that Mustafina continues to compete in the sport because she is wholly focused on it and because she wants her daughter to be proud of her. Without the context of other significant people in Mustafina’s life able to comment on her decisions, and not knowing much about the state of Russian gymnastics and why it still relies on a few big names like Mustafina as a role model to maintain its popularity in Russia, even as she becomes something of an old warhorse, viewers might justifiably conclude that Mustafina is either selfish or unrealistic. It may all be very well for Mustafina to keep going but one wonders what her life will be like after gymnastics – the film gives the impression that her life revolves completely around the sport, at least while she is away from Alisa.

Perhaps when Mustafina has retired from the sport, a fuller and more informative documentary about her life in the sport, what motivated her to continue in spite of her injuries and the hard work involved, and what joys she found in gymnastics and will find in her future life with Alisa, might be made. Something of what inspires the human spirit to persevere and to find fulfillment and connection with others – it is significant that Mustafina mentions that she enjoys competing against Americans Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, despite their very different styles as gymnasts, and that the three are friends – might become more prominent.