The COVID-19 pandemic may have postponed the the 2020 Olympics, but not the new release of this new six-part documentary series “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics,” directed by Hancock Park resident Bess Kargman and now available on YouTube Orginals. The series explores what it takes to be an elite gymnast, through the voices of the sport’s greatest champions, including pioneers like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci, whose careers profoundly changed the sport.
Fortunately, the series finished shooting before the pandemic or it too would have been delayed as the nation shut down in early March.
“We wrapped on March 8,” Kargman told the Buzz. “Fortunately, we had started editing from day one, so we were able to finish remotely. It was an insanely more different process than anything I have experienced, but while we were able to work together, we had taken it far enough along that it felt ok for everyone to go home and work.”
The project was about two years in the making, with Kargman joining for the last eight months as director. She credits the executive producers for giving her the opportunity to direct the project and to bring her then-two-month-old son with her to the set.
“They are looking for a director who loves women’s sports and capturing the elegance pf the body in motion, but I thought I was going to have to say no,” Kargman told the Buzz. “I asked if my son could come, in exchange for more hours, and they said yes. I credit them for giving me the chance to do the project.”
“It was really amazing to document the tenacity and focus that these young gymnasts have from such an early age. Gymnastics is truly the hardest sport in the world,” noted Kargman, who played in college level athletics and seems to have found a niche making powerful documentaries about the high level competition.
Kargman’s first film, “First Position” is a deep and intimate journey following six young dancers preparing for a chance to enter the world of professional ballet. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released theatrically by Sundance Selects.
Her follow up effort, COACH, for ESPN Films, was executive produced by Whoopi Goldberg, and tells the remarkable story of C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Despite enormous personal tragedies, Coach Stringer’s accomplishments with three different teams and the dignity with which she conducted herself when confronted with racism and sexism earned her entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Kargman loves the challenge of capturing the human body of motion as well as exploring the incredible personal stories.
“There’s a wonderful duality in the work,” said Kargman who told us she’s always wanted to do something related to gymnastics. “To capture the movement and the powerful stories so the thrill is both visual and emotional.”
In addition to the personal stories, Kargman examines the evolution of gymnastics and the impact the sport has had on world politics with extraordinary interviews with Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci and some amazing historical footage. She also doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the sport too. Kargman told us she wanted to cover a wide swath of the history of the sport, not just the abuse scandal of Larry Nasser that broke in 2015. Nasser was the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor who was accused of assaulting at least 250 young women and girls dating back to 1992. He is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to charges of sexual assault on minors.
“Nasser is only one part of a sport,” Kargman told us. “I want to “untaint” the sport from him and take the sport back. There was systemic abuse going back and the system was broken but the bigger picture of the sport is what’s important. Gymnastics has its foundation in extremest discipline. I hope the series showcases how the sport has evolved and we tried to showcase the beauty and power and grace.”
The series was inspired by a book that focused on the changes in the scoring system and the resulting transformation of the sport. The episodes are organized by the apparatus: the balance beam, the vault, the uneven bars, and finally the floor, where gymnasts explains they can fine joy in developing programs that connect with the audience and show their true personalities. For a gymnastics fan there’s lots of great footage of extraordinary performances in addition to the personal insights shared by the incredible young athletes who reveal with is it’s like to compete at this high level in a sport which they are literally changing with every new competitor.
The series features 2021 Team USA hopefuls Jade Carey, Olivia Greaves, Morgan Hurd, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, Riley McCusker, MyKayla Skinner, Trinity Thomas, and Laurie Hernandez; plus appearances and featured stories from numerous gymnastics icons, including Vanessa Atler, Mohini Bhardwaj, Ellie Black, Svetlana Boginskaya, Amanda Borden, Oksana Chusovitina, Kathy Johnson Clarke, Nadia Comaneci, Jamie Dantzscher, Coline Devillard, Becky Downie, Nellie Kim, Madison Kocian, Olga Korbut, Phoebe Mills, Dominique Moceanu, Katelyn Ohashi, Betty Okino, Carly Patterson, Samantha Peszek, Aly Raisman, Cathy Rigby, Kyla Ross, Daniela Silivas, Bridget Sloan, Tracee Talavera, and Jordyn Wieber.
“Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” is produced by Main Event Media, All3Media America, and Five All in the Fifth Entertainment. The series is directed by Bess Kargman (First Position,Coach) and by Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel, The Lion’s Mouth Opens), who also serve as executive producers alongside Jimmy Fox for Main Event Media and Alex Garinger and Douglas Banker for Five All in the Fifth Entertainment, with April Smith and Julian Cautherley serving as co-executive producers. Susanne Daniels is Global Head of Original Content for YouTube. Nadine Zylstra, Head of Learning and Impact for YouTube Originals, along with Ian Roth on the Learning and Impact Development team oversee the series. The series is available on the Glamour Magazine YouTube Channel.
About Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the co-editor and publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.
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