Here is a film that accomplishes the difficult task of capturing the heroic trials of its subject without overly valorising and mythologising the real person. It is reminiscent of the excellent Time Trial documentary about cyclist David Millar, which ruminated on the turmoil that comes with the waning power of a once exceptional athlete’s body. Here, the struggle is even more heartbreaking, as the film recounts the road to the 2016 summer Paralympics of Brazilian swimmer Susana Schnarndorf, a six-time Ironman Triathlon winner who now suffers from multiple system atrophy (MSA), a rare neurological disorder.
Though dealing with a terminal illness, A Day for Susana has a matter-of-fact, fly-on-the-wall approach as it calmly chronicles the two years leading up to the Paralympics where Schnarndorf competed in numerous championships. As MSA affects the human body slowly, causing autonomic and mobility impairments, it proves exceptionally difficult for the 48-year-old Schnarndorf to not only train but to pick the right category to compete in – these latter are divided according to the severity of the disability. As a result, her individual race times change drastically from one year to another.
In the face of such difficulties, Schnarndorf proves to be an especially compelling subject as the film alternates between the heaviness of her losses and the lightness with which she would sometimes joke about the condition. The helplessness that Schnarndorf feels about her body is also mirrored in her relationship to her oldest son, from whom she becomes estranged partly due to the rigorous sport. Swimming emerges here as the one constant that anchors her life. The makers have take an ill-conceived decision to colour-grade the film’s middle section in a uniform shade of grey; even if the intention is to reflect Schnarndorf’s reverses, the footage merely looks blurry and difficult to see. Despite this, this is still an important and poignant work.
A Day for Susana is available on 23 July on True Story.