“This Work is a Product of Survival”: Lea Glob on Tribeca 2023 Premiere Apolonia, Apolonia
Premiering in international competition at last year’s IDFA, where it took top prize, Lea Glob’s (2015’s Olmo and The Seagull) Apolonia, Apolonia is an intense character study of French figurative painter Apolonia Sokol. The Danish director met the artist, who is of Danish and Polish descent, while searching for the protagonist of her first doc while attending the Danish Film School, and then trailed her for the next 13 years.
And while the bohemian free spirit, who was raised in a Paris underground theater founded by her eccentric parents (an old VHS tape Apolonia discovers comes with the written warning not to view before she turns 18, though watching one’s conception is arguably inappropriate at any age), is the star, Glob herself is also a main character, albeit mostly through the doc’s poetic narration. Indeed, the film is just as much about the evolving relationship between these two strong and vulnerable women on opposite sides of the lens as it is a “portrait of an artist.”
And yet it’s also clearly a mash note from Glob to Apolonia, which likewise renders Apolonia, Apolonia a highly subjective, oftentimes rose-colored-glasses portrayal — transparently so. As Glob herself admits from the start, “No motif has ever caught my eye as she did.” Apolonia is this director’s muse and the film literally a cinematic following of one’s muse, no matter how long it takes, or to the unorthodox places — physical, psychological, emotional — such a journey might lead.
Just prior to the doc’s Tribeca debut Filmmaker reached out to Glob to learn all about the passionate multiyear project, and the soaring highs and tragic lows of life itself she grew from along the way.
Filmmaker: Since this film’s production spanned 13 years, you must have been shooting even while co-directing 2015’s Olmo and The Seagull with Petra Costa. So what stage were you at on Apolonia, Apolonia during that period of time? And how did that film and/or working with Petra (and/or 2016’s Venus, another co-directed project) influence your approach to this solo debut?
Glob: Working with Petra Costa, Olivia Corsini and Serge Nicolai on the CPH:LAB-initiated collaboration Olmo and The Seagull was, for me, really a second film school. I learned so much about collaboration, and I met some true artists, who very generously allowed us to explore questions about identity as a female artist and about motherhood.
From the collaborations I developed a firm belief in narration as a cinematic tool, and also a love for the female stream of consciousness narration. (Olmo itself was very inspired by the inner voices of the characters of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.) Also, the courage of the great actress Olivia Corsini to let the story be built around her personal experiences of fears and doubts around motherhood was a great inspiration for me, especially when I later on decided to involve my own such questions into the work of Apolonia, Apolonia. For her part, Petra Costa showed me how fighting for the very best cut of the film really pays off. I think that a lot of my own persistence with this film is inspired by seeing how Petra always insisted on the maybe harder but artistically interesting path; to not give up until the best film possible is born.
Venus was another collaboration that allowed us to do research on women’s relationships towards sexuality and to investigate the internal language and imagery around sexual identity in the female mind. Together with Mette Carla Albrechtsen working on this film, we encountered around 100 women who shared their perspectives; from that we discovered that much of the internal erotic or sexual imagery in our minds, the words of our thoughts, were not even our own. They were destructive reproductions of a male patriarchal society model.
It was quite shocking to discover how many women, myself included, were in the end unconsciously building our private concepts of becoming a woman around these stereotypes. So when I met Apolonia, a young woman who refused to reproduce such stereotypes and who hosted some of the great female thinkers and activists of our time — including Oksana Shachko, a founder of Femen — I knew how revolutionary this was. And a feminist like Oksana was using the mass media to make these structures visible.
Filmmaker: I read (in my IDFA press notes) that the “power positions” between you and Apolonia shifted during the course of filming. She went from being an unknown bohemian in front of your lens to a globetrotting up-and-comer who many wanted to photograph (while you remained a documentary filmmaker). Did this present unexpected challenges, both on a personal and logistical level?
Glob: When I first talked to Apolonia I was living in Denmark, and was searching for a subject for my first film school project. She was so charismatic that I was instantly hooked. She disclosed that she lived in a theater in Paris, and gave me the address. She then instructed me to stand on the street under her window once I’d arrived and to call her name twice (“Apolonia, Apolonia”). She would then throw me the keys. This was a woman with a sense for the theatrical mise-en-scène! As I teasingly say in the film, “Whether it was me who captured Apolonia with my camera or Apolonia that caught me in her theater, I still don’t know.”
So this game, this power play between portraying and being portrayed, is a very productive one; and I have never really had any “upper hand,” so to speak. We were very equal. But it is true that throughout the years we have worked together the differences between our art forms have also revealed themselves. The art world versus the film world — or, especially, the world of painting versus that of documentary film. If you succeed in the art world the paintings can become objects of investments on the second market, which is not the case for a film. So that also defines the status of the worlds we work in. I am so very proud that Apolonia has manifested herself as a strong artist within both institutions and the art market. For a young woman this is an outstanding achievement.
Filmmaker: The “theme song,” which is so achingly beautiful, really contributes to the emotion of the film. Can you talk a bit about the soundtrack, how that particular aspect developed?
Glob: The Polish part of the production is quite substantial, with Staron Film managing to get the Stettin Philharmonic Orchestra to record our composer Jonas Struck’s compositions. And they even formed a choir for the works. The female voices represent the women’s stories tied to Eastern European history — a history that is ever more present. That was such an important element in the compositions.
But the score itself is really the culmination of all the efforts of Jonas and his team. Even as we worked over the years on the film, our composer was busy simultaneously building the soundtrack; and the compositions grew alongside the coming of age of Apolonia and myself.
Filmmaker: During the course of filming you concurrently became a mother and underwent a very personal trauma; and surprisingly, the fraught experience was actually the reason you decided to continue working on the doc. So how did these life-changing events transform how you ultimately viewed the project? How did they affect the edit once you’d gotten to post?
Glob: As an artist my personal life will always affect the works that I do. After I gave birth to my son I caught a very bad infection, and was sent home from the hospital without proper care. I got very sick and was in a coma for a long time fighting for my life.
From there I had to learn everything again — how to move, how to walk — everything. While also learning to become a mother. This is ultimately a life-changing experience, so I can only say that this work is a product of survival. I try to use this film to convey that art, and creation in general, is something very human. If we stop, we die.
Filmmaker: Was Apolonia shown various cuts throughout the years – and how does she feel about the final film?
Glob: Apolonia and I were in close contact while finishing up the film; I valued her perspectives on the final cut. And I think Apolonia used this trust in a good way, in that she would never ask for me to make her look better than she was, or to censure anything because of vanity or such things. Today she is proud of it.
As you see in the film, Apolonia lets us into her personal life in very vulnerable moments. She takes us into the world of art, opens the door for us to see what the actual life of the artist looks like, and how the transition from art school to market to institutions works. Even though I would, of course, have final cut, we discussed different cuts together. Apolonia is a strong feminist and artist, so her perspectives matter.
For me, it would be a sad situation if a film shot over such a long period ended up hurting the person who gave it so much. I guess one might be afraid that letting the protagonist/heroine into the editing process so closely would create a film filled with compromise, but in the end it actually made it better. I think it depends on the film and the protagonist, but for us it was important to the creation of this double (self) portrait. And it allowed me to learn as a director to give room for other ways of seeing.