The Final Cut
Filmmaker Jade Ang Jackman gets to the point in this story about her latest subject, France’s fencing star Ysaora Thibus
By Jade Ang Jackman
Time stands still when you watch fencing. The silver foils almost intertwine until one hits their target. For athletes at an elite level, the poise which has been perfected over years of dedicated training is brought down to several seconds of speed. Then, of course, there is the sport’s history.
Drawn from the skills needed for duelling, the first mentions of the practice can be seen in manuscripts such as The Merry Wives of Windsor which was first published in 1602. In fact, fencing was one of the first sports to be played in the Olympics and is one of five to have been played at every Games since their inception. As fencing is less mainstream sport, that is part of my answer when people ask me why I decided to make a short documentary – called The Countdown – about a fencer. But it was mainly due to the protagonist, French Olympic fencer Ysaora Thibus, and her preparation for a Games that almost didn’t happen.
As a film director, you learn to do your research. With the state of flux that Covid-19 threw us into, I had more than ample time for that. Looking over my favourite films and franchises, it struck me that there was a strong theme uniting them. Give me some unforgettable action sequences, fly looks and a female lead and, boom, it pretty much made the list. However, the problem was I had started to notice some flaws in the character development of these action stars that I loved. Some were born assassins giving up their “feminine” tendencies to become super sharp killers whereas the rest were inspired to fight after the loss of a loved one. Sure, that’s a laudable arc but it made me wonder about the other reasons women might fight.
Tentatively, I began looking into the lives of women who excelled in combat sports. After hearing about the adrenaline of kickboxing, I started doing it myself; the claims were not unfounded! And it was during this period of research that I stumbled across Ysaora on Instagram. Whilst one could not fail to be impressed by her Olympic record and sporting prowess, I was drawn to her passion project, Essentielle. Rather like my own belief that women’s narratives in action films are wanting, Ysaora created her platform to combat the lack of reportage around women in sport. Despite women making up 40% of athletes, a UNESCO study showed that only 4%of sports media is about them. If this wasn’t a story enough, she’d conceived the project in a pandemic…
To some, it may seem curious that the timing was of interest. Of course, Ysaora’s initiative is necessary whenever she devised it. But, I began to wonder, was the cancellation of the Olympics, in such extraordinary circumstances, part of the reason that she had the capacity to create Essentielle? If you are an elite athlete, who do you become when the goalposts shift and alter your intense regime? For those training in combat sports, how do you practice without an opponent? These were the sort of questions I wanted to ask Ysaora. So, as is with the start of all good stories in 2021, I slide into her DMs.
Preparing for the Olympics is no small feat. I wondered whether Ysaora would even have capacity to be part of a film project. As Ysaora recalls, I got in touch with her about three months prior to the games. Reflecting, she remarks, “I promised myself I would not accept anything one month before. At the three month mark, I was accepting smaller projects that wouldn’t get in the way of my training.” For Ysaora, it was important that the project centred around fencing. But, she explains, “you were also interested in the extra projects that I was doing. So, I felt like I couldn’t refuse this one.”
As a filmmaker, it is important for me to visually express who my characters or collaborators are through every frame. With Ysaora, style was a big part of this. More often than not, fencing is showcased as a very traditional sport. Athletes, or practitioners, will don all-white attire which acts as a uniform as well as a mask. But, for Ysaora, I wanted something a little different to showcase her unique voice within the sport. For this, I opted for a suit designed by British designer, Bianca Saunders. Due to her suits often being credited for a modern take on masculinity, I couldn’t think of anything better than having someone fight in one.
Reporting on female athletes can be like a Catch-22: you can be critiqued for commenting on their style but also miss out an integral part of their personalities if you don’t. Personally, my rule of thumb is that if it is in a competitive context, those remarks shouldn’t take centre stage; it needs to be their sporting prowess. However, I also want to celebrate the individuality of the person that I am collaborating with. I admit I was slightly worried that Ysaora might not feel the same, but when I asked her about styling fencing in a new way, she laughed: “I thought finally! Fencing is a really old sport which I love. But, sometimes, it is not modern and you always see a similar kind of aesthetic. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realised I am more than one image and I was pretty happy that we could cross over the world of fencing and fashion in the film. In this shoot, I felt more myself. In my sport, you have the mask, you have the protection and it is the same for everyone. You never really have a chance to show your individuality or show who you are.
“Personally, I hate the expectation that I am meant to be one thing,” Ysaora continues. “As women, we certainly have more pressure about what we choose to wear. For example, you might not wear a particular item at night out of fear that you might ‘bother’ someone. But, at the same time, fashion is a statement and a way to express yourself. I’ve always tried to do things my way and I hate that people expect me to stay in one box or one thing. With clothes, I can show this! If I want to be sporty, I’ll dress sporty. If I want to be sexy, I’ll do that… I like to explore as many things as I can, I’m sort of a chameleon like that.”
Funnily enough, it was actually the look of fencing that drew the silver medallist to her sport. In her home country of Guadeloupe, her mother brought a young Ysaora along to her brother’s fencing class. Immediately, Ysaora was curious about the bright white outfits, the fighting and the foils. Reading the accounts of other women in combat sports, I noticed that several were introduced to their practice via a male sibling. Ysaora concurs, remarking that she has spoken with several leading athletes in judo, boxing and fencing who also got into the sport because of their brothers. “Parents still think about combat sports as something for their sons,” she explains, “but I am trying to change that and say that any girl can do anything she wants. If she wants to play a combat sport, she can too.”
Inspiring the next generation was something Ysaora had begun to do pre-pandemic. Bringing world champions and leading coaches together, she organised a training camp to encourage more young people into the sport. Whilst not just aimed at women, she comments on the impact of seeing double Olympic champion, Laura Flessel-Colovic, with her medals. “Unconsciously, I felt that if she can do it, I can do it and there was the feeling that I wanted to give back to the young people from my island. A lot of athletes wait to do this at the end of their career but I realised I wanted to start giving back now. I couldn’t do it, due to the pandemic and the Games, but for edition two..!”
With all of Ysaora’s ambition and various interests, it would be quite possible to get sidetracked from her and her teammates’ unbelievable silver medal win at Tokyo. In our film, The Countdown, she discusses how even if she didn’t win she’d know that she’d done everything in her power. But, as all competitive people know, loss can feel a little different on the day. “For a few days, I was devastated,” she concedes over her knockout match with Russian foil fencer Larisa Korobeynikova, “but I had to make a comeback for the team”. And, turn it around, she did.
Winning against Canada as part of the Women’s Foil Team in the quarter finals was a strong start. On paper, the next opponent, Italy, seemed like the victors. Throughout Italy’s lead, the French team were down by 12 touches. As Ysaora stepped up to meet her opponent, she was down by 3 but she and her companions had agreed to keep pushing no matter what. In Ysaora’s own words “to fight until the end” and in the final bout she dominated bringing in the silver medal win for her and the rest of the team.