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Slalom: French film highlights abuse scandals in mountain sport

A ‘deeply claustrophobic’ French film depicting a teenage skiing champion being sexually exploited by her male coach is shedding a light on the darker side of the mountain sport.  

Slalom, which premieres on Curzon Home Cinema on February 12, is the debut feature film for French director and co-writer Charlène Favier and follows 16-year-old Lyz Lopez, played by Noée Abita, who is a young alpine skiing champion who falls prey to her coach Fred, played by Jérémie Renier. 

The film is semi-autobiographical, with Favier herself trained in high performance sports as a teenager and revealing she was ‘subject to violence’ during the period. 

Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the ski racing community in recent years, with many young female athletes targeted while isolated away from family and friends with older male coaches on the competitive circuit.  

Slalom, which premieres on Curzon Home Cinema on February 12, has been hailed as ‘deeply claustrophobic’ and ‘essential viewing’ ahead of its release in the UK this week

In an interview with Cineuropa, Favier said she had been ‘subjected to certain forms of violence and certain kinds of grips in my teenage years, so I really needed to talk about that.’ 

Speaking with Euronews, she explained she wanted to look at the complexities of coach-pupil relationship.

She revealed: ‘I wanted to deal with all the ambiguities, all the contradictions, without ever caricaturing things, in the way I knit the possessive relationship.

‘It’s something she didn’t want, but at 15, you don’t know what you want.’   

The French film depicts a teenage ski champion as she is sexually exploited by her 'fierce and exacting' male coach and has been hailed as 'deeply claustrophobic' and 'essential viewing' by critics

The French film depicts a teenage ski champion as she is sexually exploited by her ‘fierce and exacting’ male coach and has been hailed as ‘deeply claustrophobic’ and ‘essential viewing’ by critics 

Charlene is not alone in her experience of suffering during her years of training as a high performance athlete.

Much like the film’s protagonist Lyz, who is harassed and abused by her ski coach Fred after being targeted as a standout within the team, competitive skiers have spoken about an underworld of exploitation within the skiing world. 

In 2017, Nicola Werdenigg, an Austrian former Olympic skier, became one of the first to speak out on what she calls the systematic abuse of power that took place in the professional skiing community more than 40 years ago. 

She said coaches and others entrusted with their safety sexually exploited young female athletes. 

Fred, played by Jérémie Renier, berates and humiliates Lyz repeatedly after pinpointing her as his star pupil

Fred, played by Jérémie Renier, berates and humiliates Lyz repeatedly after pinpointing her as his star pupil 

Speaking to German paper DerStandard, she recalled: ‘I remember the case of a younger female racer. She was secretly filmed during her first sexual intercourse by a colleague who had hidden a camera in the box. The video was played to the team shortly afterwards. 

The Olympic skier went on to say that a male teammate had raped her when she was 16, though her case never made it to court. 

Her story encouraged others to speak out about suffering sexual abuse during their time as professional skiers.

Some students and former students of prestigious schools for skiers said sexual abuse among students was part of the schools’ culture up until at least the 1990s. 

Amelie Frederique-Gagnon

Anna Prchal

Amelie Frederique-Gagnon (left) and Anna Prchal (right) were victims of Bertrand Charest, a former coach with Canada’s national development team 

In 2018 Charest, a former coach with Canada’s national development team, was convicted of 37 charges related to the sexual assault of young athletes

In 2018 Charest, a former coach with Canada’s national development team, was convicted of 37 charges related to the sexual assault of young athletes

Helen Scott-Smith, who trained during the period with Austrian coaches, said coaches treated young women as ‘fresh meat’.

She told DerStandard: ‘The coaches divided up the 15- to 20-year-old girls among themselves. They called them ‘fresh meat’ and they helped themselves. That was really something the Austrian coaches would do.’ 

At the age of 34, Helen alleges she was raped by a male technician who worked with an Austrian skier. 

German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung also cited allegations from two unnamed female skiers who said they were raped or sexually harassed in the 1960s and 1970s by a former Austrian coach. 

Lyz lives alone in an apartment because her newly divorced mother Catherine, played by Muriel Combeau, is working in Marseille and has a new boyfriend in the city

Lyz lives alone in an apartment because her newly divorced mother Catherine, played by Muriel Combeau, is working in Marseille and has a new boyfriend in the city

A lawyer for the coach said his client denied all the allegations and would take legal action against his accusers when their identity became known. 

How Slalom helps to shed a light on the sexual abuse within the ski industry  

The film follows teenage Lyz as she stays at an elite instruction school in the French Alps and trains to become a professional downhill racer.

She is trained by Fred, a retired slalom ski champion, who aims to turn his young pupils into possible national champions and even future Olympians. 

She is berated and degraded by Fred in front of her peers, with the coach telling the young teenager: ‘Practise at the side, you’re getting in everyone’s way.’ 

During an early scene when the pair are alone in his office, Fred briskly tells her to strip down to her underwear.

In another moment, he comes to see Lyz as she showers in the communal area at the centre.

Things escalate on the eve of Lyz’s competition win when Fred sexually exploits the teenager in his car, saying: ‘Look what you do to me.’  

The first time they have intercourse, the camera follows Lyz to the bathroom where she stares in the mirror as she steels herself to put on a strong

 

The sexual abuse scandal within the sport spread across the Atlantic and, in 2018, a former coach with Canada’s national development team, Bertrand Charest, was convicted of 37 charges related to the sexual assault of young athletes. 

The convictions involved nine of the 12 women who accused him of crimes that occurred more than 20 years ago when the victims and alleged victims were between ages 12 and 19.

Four women, Genevieve Simard, Gail Kelly, Amelie Frederique-Gagnon and Anna Prchal, sexually assaulted by Charest when they were adolescents said he robbed them of much of their childhood. 

‘My childhood was stolen. Skiing was my passion. I aspired to great things. I had dreams and skiing was my life,’ Simard said.

‘The sexual abuse I suffered completely destroyed my self-confidence.’  

Recalling Charest’s abuse, Kelly said her former coach took advantage of her passion for skiing and ‘my dream quickly turned into a nightmare.’ 

She said she has three young children and would never let them compete at the provincial or national level in any sport under the current structure.

‘It is urgent that we put in place a system that allows our children to be safe,’ she said.

‘I don’t want anyone to go through what I did: being manipulated, denigrated and belittled.’

She added: ‘I used to be funny, smiling and very sociable. But because of this manipulator, I became sad and withdrawn and someone who felt like a complete loser.’

Charest received a 12-year prison term for crimes which took place more than 20 years ago.

The women won the right to be identified after a judge granted their request to lift a publication ban.   

Critics have praised the film for shining a light on the darker side of the competitive sport.

Critics have praised Abita's depiction as Lyz as 'astonishing' while calling the film 'depressing and all too real'

Critics have praised Abita’s depiction as Lyz as ‘astonishing’ while calling the film ‘depressing and all too real’ 

Nikki Baughan of Empire hailed the film as ‘deeply claustrophobic and a difficult, potentially triggering watch.’

Baughan wrote: ‘In a challenging role, Abita is astonishing. She harnesses both Lyz’s burgeoning sexuality — although, crucially, never in a way that suggests she is being anything other than manipulated — and her vulnerability.’ 

Meanwhile Jake Cudsi for the Upcoming penned: ‘The predictability to the pattern of the movie’s development is depressing, distressing and all too real.’   


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