Listening to Images: A Conversation with Editor Claire Atherton

Recipient of the Vision Award at Locarno, the close collaborator with Chantal Akerman, Éric Baudelaire, and others reflects on her process.
Laura Davis
Claire Atherton
Claire Atherton is one of the most influential, yet least well-known, movie editors. A close collaborator with Chantal Akerman, Éric Baudelaire, Elsa Quinette, Noëlle Pujol, Andreas Bolm and many others, she has worked on some of the most significant experimental films in recent memory. As the recipient of this year’s 2019 Vision Award Ticinomoda, the award given by the Locarno Festival to artists “working out of the spotlight,” she makes history as the first woman to receive the prestigious honor.
In celebration of her work the festival presented La vie est ailleurs (Life Is on the Other Side, Elsa Quinette, 2011), D’est (From the East, Chantal Akerman, 1993), and Noëlle Pujol and Andreas Bolm's Alle Kinder bis auf eines (All the Children But One, 2008).. Atherton’s presence in these features is felt through their negative spaces: their stillness, their lack of dialogue, their brave leap into the unknown. Yet, as Life Is on the Other Side tells us, those who are absent have never really left. Atherton’s animation of life beyond life renders film a living thing, taking its first breaths during the edit. To watch her films is to feel something grow before you. 
Her latest collaboration with Baudelaire, Un film dramatique, assembles footage shot by students of the école Dora Maar in the Parisian suburbs. Presented in the festival’s more experimental Moving Ahead section, it was an instant favorite with its audience. What can a film be? It can be anything, one student is convinced. The warmth of this film exemplifies Atherton’s Taoist mindset; patience leads to discovery. Let things come. 
Perhaps because editing is such an oblique process, that it belies verbalization or concrete theory, mostly relying on instinct and intuition alone, is why the practice does not receive nearly enough critical attention. With this frustration in mind, I spoke with Atherton about how she listens to images. We sat down together and tried to do the impossible thing: put images into words.

NOTEBOOK: How does it feel to receive the award?
CLAIRE ATHERTON: To be honest, it was a big surprise for me, and it still is. I wasn’t expecting an award at all. Editing is something you do in the shadows, so to all of a sudden be in the light is a very special thing. I like the title very much, the Vision Award, because editing is an invisible work that creates vision. The fact that this shadow work that deals with visible and invisible has led me to be in the light is very emotional. It’s a celebration. I feel light is being made on a very important and quite unknown practice, the practice of editing. It’s not only me who is celebrated, it’s editing that is celebrated.
We have a huge responsibility as editors because filmmakers can sometimes feel afraid in the editing room, when the film is nearly finished. They are afraid of not being understood, afraid of being too personal, afraid of not doing “the right film,” afraid that nobody goes and sees their film. This fear stops the movement of creation. As editors, we have the responsibility to help the filmmakers, especially the young ones, overcome their fears, to be ready not to know exactly where they are going, but to stay confident. It is so difficult to make a film, so if you make one you have to trust what led you to begin the process. That’s what makes your film special and worth existing. 
I can understand young filmmakers are afraid, because there are often a lot of people and a lot of money involved in the process of making a film. So sometimes they lose confidence, and they are tempted to explain too much of what they want to say, to simplify too much. They don’t listen to images anymore; they just try to decide what images should say. But we, as editors, we have to help them to fight this fear and to stay in movement. That’s our responsibility. I hope this award I received will help young editors to understand that, and to believe in editing.
NOTEBOOK: As you say, the work of an editor is something that is rarely acknowledged by critics or the industry, and I wondered how you would be able to explain your practice to your audience.
ATHERTON: Well, this explanation would be very long. I can’t describe it in a few words. 
NOTEBOOK: Do you think it’s a problem of language? To edit is to feel, to color, to add texture. Sometimes language doesn’t seem enough. 
ATHERTON: Yes, it’s difficult to find the right words to describe editing, because it’s not a technique, there are no rules. What l can say in a few words is that the most important thing in editing is to be ready to be surprised, to discover the meaning of the film while making it. It’s to be receptive to what images and sound tell you beyond their apparent signification. It’s to not close images in a particular meaning but to receive images and sounds as living matters and respect their mystery. It’s to create links between all textures including time and silence. It’s to work on rhythm so that beauty and emotion can appear, and later signification can appear. Not one signification, but many layers of signification and many different significations. 
A film is watched, is lived differently by each one of us. When you watch a film and you make your own links between the images, it’s a huge physical pleasure. When this pleasure arrives, it goes through your whole body and it’s like the apparition of a light. It puts you in movement, and it helps you to feel, to remember, to think. That’s what I try to work on. Not to build a film that is closed, but to work on movement and openness. A political film is not a film which is explaining things or denouncing situations, it’s a film which makes you face your position in the world and get up and move. When I talk about responsibility in editing, it’s almost a political responsibility, and that’s what we, editors, have to preserve.
NOTEBOOK: How did you develop your practice and does it have a certain philosophy?
ATHERTON: Well yes, l think my practice has a certain philosophy, which is linked to the belief l have that art can help us to feel alive. I developed my way or editing by trying, working a lot but going little by little, and by being ready not to understand too much too early. What made me what I am, and what brought me to work and think the way l do, is the fact that I discovered very young Chinese civilization and philosophy. 
In Chinese language, the association of images creates signification. Chinese poetry works on the association of images, images that you see (Chinese writing is drawn), images that you listen to, and images that suggest matter. Poems of the Chinese antique civilization are made of words that are never connected to human feelings. The words poets use designate colors, textures, natural elements, lights. Poets also use verbs, but never pronouns. The verbs have no subject, they exist on their own.
For example, the first verse of Li Bai’s poem “Jade Staircase Lament” is “jade staircase gives birth white dew.” Jade can suggest a woman, and the birth of white dew can suggest early morning. So this verse can mean: “A woman is waiting the whole night in the porch of her house.” It can also suggest that the woman is waiting, and that she is sad. But nothing is said, everything is suggested. Each person has his own link to the poem, each person can invent and feel meanings. 
This is way of creating is very much linked to Taoist philosophy, in which there is this idea that you let things come and you don’t decide right away what you want to say or to do. It’s the path that is as important, the path is the result. Another important issue in Taoism is the emptiness, which is the place where transformations can happen and where links are created between things. It’s the vital breath. When I was very young, I had all those philosophical ideas and feelings inside of me, but I didn’t know it would be so important in connection to my practice of editing.
NOTEBOOK: How is this related to your way of working?
ATHERTON: When I edit, I am never looking for a film to describe reality or tell a story. I am looking for a film to be alive. I work on its rhythm to try and find its breath; I try to create a space where things don’t freeze, and where the viewers can move. This process is very close to Taoism and to Chinese poetry. 
I also think editing is linked to living. When you edit, you don’t know exactly where you’re going. You feel, you’re open to chance, to unexpected happenings. Happenstance. If you know exactly what you want to say, it’s not necessary to make a film. The film is moving by itself. It’s moving and it’s revealing itself to you in the process. The process is also still moving for me. For each film I edit, I discover a different way of working. For each film l feel a little anxious and, at the same time, very confident.
In life it’s also important to be open. If you have a life-plan, all you have to do is to fill it. You don’t feel anymore, you don’t move any more, you don’t live any more.
NOTEBOOK: With that in mind, how do you decide on the first shot of a film?
ATHERTON: I can’t say I decide. Something happens in my body. l can’t explain what it is, but it gives me the intuition, the desire to open the film with a particular image. Sometimes this desire occurs during the discovery of rushes, sometimes later. Often I try it alone, just to feel if it’s a good direction. Then I share it with the filmmaker, and together we can know if it’s right or not.
The beginning of a film opens a space that brings out the following shots. Placing the first shot is like laying the foundation stone of a house; it’s nearly nothing, but at the same time it’s a lot, because it’s a birth.
NOTEBOOK: In contrast, how does it feel to discard material? 
ATHERTON: I never have the feeling I discard material. Editing is not about taking out; it’s about putting together. I receive images and sounds as if they were presents, and I build a relationship with each one of them. Then l try to associate them, to shape them, and the film begins to exist. As for the images that are not in the film, l feel like they have brothers and sisters in the film. They are part of the film because they are part of the process of the film. Everything leads to the film. Every body, every instant, every time. The time of the process is also part of the film. Chantal and l liked to say that editing is playing “who loses wins.” 
NOTEBOOK: Is it okay to talk about Chantal Akerman and how you met?
ATHERTON: Of course it’s okay to talk about how we met, but it’s a long story! In a few words, I met Chantal by chance, in 1984. I was supposed to lend her technical assistance for the video filming of the play Letters Home (with Delphine and Coralie Seyrig), and she asked me to frame the shots. There was immediately a strong connection between us. She said she felt like we had the same relationship to time and images. She didn’t ask about my training or skills, she just said she wanted to work with me.
NOTEBOOK: How did you know you would work well together? 
ATHERTON: She said it. She knew.
NOTEBOOK: And you said yes. 
ATHERTON: Of course. I wasn’t even impressed or frightened. I was very young. I didn’t put her on a pedestal. I was just there with her, not pretending anything but standing with everything I am. I think she was sensible to that. Chantal was very intuitive. I like this story because it says a lot about how she was making her choices. Today many people ask for diplomas and whatever, she didn’t ask me anything. She knew. 
NOTEBOOK: So if not that, then what do you think it was she knew? 
ATHERTON: She knew we were seeing the same things and feeling the same things. She liked my way of being, and my way of framing. Each time I was getting closer to Delphine Seyrig or whatever, she was just about to tell me to do so. At the end of the shooting of the play, she just said: “it’s incredible, we feel the same, we see the same. I want to work with you.”
NOTEBOOK: I want to ask how you create geographical distance. I feel in a lot of the films you work on we travel. 
ATHERTON: I don’t know, I am not really aware of it. l don’t create geographical distance in purpose, but l work on distance. Distance, links and movement. The feeling of travelling is probably connected to this. Each film itself is a voyage. 
NOTEBOOK: But the feeling, for me watching D’est, is almost like they’re wading through water. It’s a type of movement that is especially heavy. 
ATHERTON: I didn’t think about water, more about slowness. When l discovered the images of D’est, it was like a love affair. I felt they were very familiar, and also very mysterious. l knew l had to respect their secret. I knew that if l had tried to understand them too well, it would have stopped the creation process. I could feel the mystery in the editing room, something that we shouldn’t touch. It helped us to edit. It’s only when the film was finished that words could appear.

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Claire AthertonInterviewsLocarnoLocarno 2019Festival CoverageChantal AkermanEric BaudelaireElsa QuinetteNoëlle PujolAndreas Bolm
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