Sonja Vesterholt

Mirroring Danish Life

Documentary films should strive to give a clear view of what the world looks like,” says Sonja Vesterholt, 55—a Russian-born filmmaker who lives in Denmark and in January won first prize at the prestigious Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels in Biarritz, France. Vesterholt is a storyteller: “My theme is human life,” she tells Lotte Thorsen of Copenhagen’s Politiken.

Vesterholt was born in what was then Leningrad and lived for her first 18 years in a collective apartment shared with seven other families, dreaming about space. “I read a lot of science fiction,” she recalls. “There was a novel about a girl who lived on Mars. And what made the greatest impression on me was that she had her own bedroom.”

When she was 15, her mother was paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage. Her father abandoned the family. Sonja left school and went to work. She later returned to school, eventually studying music and the Russian language and literature. In 1971, she and her husband immigrated to Finland, then to Denmark. In 1988, she opened Scandinavia’s first poster gallery in Copenhagen. Then she saw an ad for a program for artists at the Danske Filmskole. She decided to become a film producer, focusing on stories of life in Russia and the Baltic nations. “The picture is never monochromatic. And that is what I want to tell.”

Pursuing the polychromatic in her work in Denmark, however, has forced Vesterholt to rein in her intensity. In Russia, she says, “there is room for big emotions.” But in a small country like Denmark, the scale of feelings is rather more limited.

“Danes love to know how they look,” Vesterholt observes. “It is a heavy burden to be their mirror.”