Faking It: How Embellishing a Cage-Fight Sequence Brought Glena Closer to Truth

Glena, Allan Luebke’s directorial debut, follows 30-something single-mother-turned-cage-fighter Glena Avila, who entered the professional world of MMA to support her family.

The film premiered as a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Slamdance in 2014. Here, Luebke talks about a moment all documentary moviemakers must know: when the footage you’ve captured seems like a pale shadow of the actual lived experience. How bound are documentarians to the camera’s “truth?” As Luebke argues, not very.


 

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” said Pablo Picasso.

1. Fight

It’s 10:45 p.m. in St. Louis, and Glena Avila is trapped inside a metal cage getting the living shit kicked out of her. Fifteen-hundred drunken fight fans are cheering the carnage with a deafening roar. And I’m right there up against the cage. Pointing my camera through the cyclone fence and trying to focus as tears stream down my face.

Four months prior, I’d foolheartedly begun documenting Glena Avila’s quest to become a professional cage fighter. I was unemployed, broke (as usual) and looking to pad my résumé a little before applying for a full-time job in video production. But what began as a little side project had rapidly snowballed into full-on obsession.

Glena was a 36-year-old single mother of two who had taken up cage fighting out of the blue, and in barely a year’s time, become one of the top-ranked amateur female fighters in the world. As if a fighter starting her career at age 36 weren’t enough, Glena—who had grown up in severe poverty—was now quitting her stable government job and risking financial ruin to pursue her dream. She had finally stumbled on what she knew to be her true calling, and was willing to sacrifice anything and everything for what she knew was her last chance to do something truly amazing with her life.

In four months of shooting, Glena had gone from an “interesting” subject to a “moving” subject to… the flat-out most inspiring person I had ever met.

And here in St. Louis, she’s getting hurt. Bad.

Having amassed a 5-0 record, Glena’s now in the cage with an undefeated world champion kick boxer in a world-title bout. A win will launch her into a dream career as a professional fighter. A loss could very well mean the end of everything. Her opponent, Brittany Anic, is younger than Glena. Bigger than Glena. Stronger than Glena. And unleashing barrages of punch/kick combos so brutal you can practically see the cartoon stars circling Glena’s head.

Glena is used to being the hometown hero, fighting in front of cheering fans. But for the first time, she’s in enemy territory. The crowd is cheering for Brittany—every punch, every kick. And I keep thinking, “What the fuck is wrong with everyone? Don’t you understand what’s on the line for Glena? Don’t you know how hard she’d trained? Don’t you know the bank’s threatening to foreclose on her house? Don’t you know her douchebag of an ex-husband is trying to use her cage fighting as an excuse to get custody of her daughter? Don’t you know she’s the fucking hero of this story?”

I want to put the camera down. I want to run away. How can I just stand here and watch Glena—my friend, my inspiration—lose her dream?

But I keep filming.

crowd

The crowd looks on and cheers as Glena Avila fights Brittany Anic

2. Footage

Back in Portland, I sit down to watch the footage in my editing suite (otherwise known as the kitchen table). Given how the fight had literally brought me to tears, I take a deep breath and do my best to mentally prepare myself for a flood of emotions before pressing play…

…but the emotions don’t come.

It’s flat. It’s colorless. It’s even boring at times. Instead of sounding like a bloodthirsty mob, the raucous crowd sounds quiet, even disinterested. The thud of Glena and her opponent absorbing punches and slamming into the canvas has vanished. Somehow the raw footage is utterly failing to deliver the true rawness of the moment. Visually, the camera has managed to capture everything, but emotionally… nothing.

What the fuck?

My gut sinks, but I go ahead and assemble a rough cut of the fight anyway. Thankfully, we shot it from four different camera angles, which allows me to edit out the slower moments and tighten up the action. We also had a mic and camera on Glena’s coach Ron Andersen, which I splice in to make things more dynamic. But still, watching it at my kitchen table is lightyears away from the way I experienced it live. I want the film’s audience to experience the fight the way I did.

I briefly grapple with the notion of journalistic integrity and the “rules” of documentary filmmaking, but quickly realize that I don’t give a shit. I want the audience to see what I saw, hear what I heard and, above all, feel what I felt. That is the truth I’m after, not the flat colorless lie the raw footage is showing me.

I start going to fights around Portland with an audio recorder and shotgun mic, and record the sound of the crowds cheering, booing, clapping, etc. I delete every shred of source crowd audio and begin sound designing the entire fight. Now, when Glena gets punched, the crowd pops the way I remember. Little by little, the fight starts to come to life.

I show what I have so far to Portland-based filmmaker Matt Mastrantuono, and he notes that he wishes the scene had color commentary—announcers calling the action and explaining to all the fight newbies what’s actually happening in the cage. Can I just go ahead and add in commentary after the fact?

I can if I want my truth.

I persuade Trent and Heather Standing, two of Portland’s best mixed martial arts color commentators, to spend hours in my brother’s home recording studio giving commentary. And… it’s amazing. For the first time, I’m actually grinning while watching the fight scene. As soon as we’re done in the studio, I rush back to my laptop and kitchen table to re-edit everything with the commentary.

At last, the fight comes alive. It’s real. My eyes start to tear up. It’s the fight I fucking remember.

3. Fact

There is no such thing as an objective truth in documentary filmmaking. We all know that something as simple as changing the camera angle can dramatically alter how an audience perceives a scene—can change the “truth” of an entire film. And yet so many of us edit as if this objective truth still exists.

The only real truth a documentary filmmaker can strive for is subjective truth—to use all the various tools of filmmaking to create something on the screen that recaptures what it actually felt like to be there. Something that feels true. That’s what I did with this fight scene, and that’s what I ended up doing for the entire movie of Glena.

And all I have to do is sit through a screening and watch the audience’s response to know I made the right choice. MM

Glena is available on all VOD platforms starting August 11, 2015, courtesy of GoDigital. To learn more about the film, visit its website here.

 

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