Lea Glob on her journey with Apolonia Sokol

    • Festival
    • November 20, 2022
    • By Vladan Petković

    Danish filmmaker Lea Glob has triumphed at IDFA, winning Best Film in the International Competition with her third film, and her first solo-directed effort, Apolonia, Apolonia. Filmed over a period of 13 years, it charts the trajectory of the titular protagonist, but also of the filmmaker herself.

    Glob met her protagonist, the young figurative painter Apolonia Sokol, in 2009 through a mutual friend, over Skype. Back then, the Danish filmmaker was a student at Copenhagen's National Film School and looking for a subject for a short film assignment.

    "I was just watching this woman on the screen, telling me many interesting things, while a lot of people entered the frame and exited it. There was this whole narrative just going on already. I felt like I was late, and there was already a film unspooling," she recalls over a cup of coffee at the International Theater Amsterdam.

    What Glob saw on Skype was life in the underground theatre founded by Apolonia's actor parents, which she had turned into a hub for like-minded artists, poets, and political activists. For the young film student, it was an ideal image of a bohemian lifestyle that she immediately got attached to, not least due to the fact that her family comes from a long line of painters, including her grandfather.

    "I was living alone with my mother, and I didn't have siblings, so I was always listening to a lot of stories about our family," Glob remembers. "I was also very close to my grandfather, probably because I didn't have a father. It was painful for him. He was a painter, but he was never a commercial success. He would leave for three months every year to paint, and I was wondering, what is this thing that you leave your whole family to do? I put the idea of painting and painters on a pedestal. I was idealizing it."

    This idealization played a big role in Glob's fascination with Apolonia, but also in the shape that the film would eventually have.

    "I kept searching for the reason why I was so drawn to her, and this is why I decided to put myself in the film as a character," she explains. "I tried to show to the audience this young girl from the very dull countryside coming to this myth-like place of the Paris underground theater. It was a strange and sometimes scary place—that's why I tried to capture it by making models."

    While she was a student, Glob had typically romanticized ideas about documentary filmmaking.

    "In the beginning, it was really like a subject-object kind of relationship. I was a very ambitious filmmaker, with this idea that I am the camera, I am recording right away and not interfering, I am here for the film. But of course that was an illusion."

    Finding a way through different responsibilities

    Glob wasn't satisfied with the short student film she had made with Apolonia. She felt that the artist deserved more, and moreover, she says she could not stop thinking about her. So when Glob was in Paris filming Olmo and the Seagull with co-director Petra Costa, she contacted Apolonia and said, "I need to make another film."

    A key point in their ever-shifting relationship was when Apolonia went to Los Angeles.

    "She was no longer confined within this framework of art school, but she was also much more alone. And she was also just eager, desperate to make it so she could keep painting, because otherwise she would have had to get a job," Glob explains.

    Like Apolonia, Glob was out of film school, and she had to make a living.

    "I don't have a wealthy background myself, so I had to earn money to go after her. Everything was kind of hectic. I was actually looking to finish the film at that point," she recalls.

    Because she had received financing from different funders, Glob felt a responsibility to deliver a product. But this was not the ending she was hoping to get.

    "I felt I couldn't leave her at that moment. I had already followed her for many years, so if I put this up on the big screen it would reinforce a moment when she was so vulnerable and that would have been really wrong. So I wanted to find a moment where the world could see the artist that I saw," she says.

    Apolonia's style dramatically changed when she got to Los Angeles and met the famous collector Stefan Simchowitz, who gave her an opportunity but also had little regard for her artistic process.

    "You have these people who can take in you and your art, and you can become established. But you are like a commodity. That was just very visible, and Simchowitz is very clear about his business model. I saw this whole industry from inside, but when you're young and really desperate and need to have the money, you don't have much choice. Before, she would steal paint, and then he came and he gave her a cheque up-front. No one else did that.

    "It's really difficult because this commercial way of being gets into you. That was my feeling—you can't just be around capitalism and think, I'm OK. It gets into your system and soul," she reflects.

    Oksana's death

    Besides Apolonia and Glob, the film has another significant protagonist: Oksana Shachko, one of the founders of the radical feminist activist group Femen, who came to Paris from Ukraine as an asylum-seeker and found herself in Apolonia's theater. She killed herself in 2018.

    "Oksana is really one of the women that has mattered in this age that we are in; she really started something. I think she will never be forgotten," Glob says.

    Oksana's death was a tragedy both for Apolonia and Glob, but it helped them recognize that this was not just a case of a filmmaker making a documentary about an artist: it was about a relationship between two artists, documented by camera.

    Editing and how to get to it

    When asked how she decided when to eventually finish the filming, Glob says:

    "Apolonia sent me a text after Oksana had died, saying, 'Dear Lea, I can't anymore, I want to live my life without a camera.' And I liked that, I also needed to live a life without being behind the camera. That was really the ending."

    Editing footage collected over a period of 13 years was always going to be a challenge, but in addition, Glob wanted to include a voice-over narration.

    "I love cinema with narration, but I find it very hard to do, and it took us a very long time even though it seems very simple," she says.

    In fact, the narration was what helped Glob find the shape for her film, after mistakes she says she had made.

    "I started editing too early. In hindsight, I should have just waited until I knew what the ending was. I had the need to put what I shot into some kind of order. I mistook the kind of narrative you had to do for planning and funding with the kind of narrative you actually have to do in the editing," she explains.

    "I tried to force too much of a structure on the material, and because we had so much material, it took a long time. But then, I knew I would need to integrate the voice-over narration because I had to condense time."

    However, the narration is what initially got her and the first editor she worked with, Thor Ochsner, stuck.

    "I knew him from film school, and we edited together a lot, but narration seems to require a special skill. So we decided to stop, and I started to work with Andreas Bøggild Monies, who later became my husband. His way of working brought something to editing that Thor and I couldn't," Glob recalls.

    They had help from another editor, Claudio Hughes, who provided a completely different perspective.

    "It was nice to feel different temperatures in the editing room. But it was difficult because the footage was really good. She's a very vibrant person—really good with the camera. And with Apolonia in the frame, every director would be able to sculpt it in a different way. But I really had an agreement with Apolonia what the film should be, and it was important for me to listen to her," she explains.

    The director as a character

    After Glob had a baby, she fell very sick. When she decided to include her personal experience into the film in the editing, she says it became a lot more universal—no longer just an artist portrait, but a documentary about women with different destinies and different ways that they use images in.

    "There are three destinies in the film and mine is one of them. Two of them experienced a fall at certain points of their lives, Oksana and me, but I had a different social starting point because I come from Denmark and I have a family, which stayed in one place for generations. So when I fell, I was caught, and Oksana wasn't.

    "Apolonia is a cosmopolitan, a real artist who, working with images, acknowledges that images have power, and that images and power are linked and related to each other. The three women in the film use images in different ways, and I sometimes feel like I just accidentally stepped into this place where some really important things happened," she says.

    Of course, Glob did not just drop out of nowhere into the situation where she had a chance to follow and take part in such a powerful story. It is a proof of her instinct as a filmmaker that she had recognized a singular figure rising in the art world, and a testament to her integrity and courage that she stayed with her for so long and decided to integrate her own intimate experiences in the film.

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