Helen van Dongen
I met Helen van Dongen (Durant)
in Townsend, Vermont, at the peak of the autumn leaves last year. Townsend is
a prototypical New England mountain town, complete with a small downtown and a
white, steepled church. This was not the setting I had imagined for an encounter
with a woman whose career was intertwined with many of the most famous documentaries
in film history. However, after a long career as an editor and director she retired
to the Townsend area with her husband, a well respected White House reporter.
Together they wrote and edited impressive books on Appalachian life.
As she explains below, Van Dongen entered the film world by happy coincidence.
Her employers son was Joris Ivens and she ended up present at the creation
of two of the first great films of the avant-garde, The Bridge (1928) and Rain
(1929). She developed an international network of filmmaker colleagues through
the activities of the Film Liga in Amsterdam, which hosted people like Eisenstein,
Pudovkin, Ruttmann and other luminaries of the silent cinema. At the coming of
sound, she studied at the studios in Joinville. She taught editing in the Soviet
Union in the early 1930s. She worked with Buñuel on projects sending films
to Latin America, and on a Capra project Know Your Enemy: Japan (1944). However,
it was her skillful editing that made her name, building a filmography stocked
with canonical works from the history of documentary film, films like Borinage
(1934), The 400 Million (1939), The Spanish Earth (1937), and Louisiana Story
With the exception of compilation filmmakers like Esther Shub and certain experimental
films, the editors of documentary films rarely receive attention. Perhaps it is
because of the documentarists emphasis on representing realitythinking
about editing requires us to consider the thorough mediation of the filmmakers
craft. When documentary editors do attract comment, one occasionally hears the
half-joke that behind every great (male) documentary filmmaker stands a female
editor. While this may foreground the sexual politics of the production side of
documentary, it still threatens to slight the considerable achievement of a filmmaker
like Helen van Dongen. Her artistry in constructing powerful wholes out of so
much disparate footage earned her worldwide recognition as a master editor. She
shared her thoughts on her films and her life as an editor of nonfiction film
with Documentary Box.
Abé Mark Nornes (AMN): You started at CAPI knowing nothing,
but discovered film there, right?
Helen van Dongen (HVD): The Amsterdam firm called CAPI sold optical equipment
and employed me as a four-language correspondent. At the same time, the owners
son, Joris Ivens, returned from his technical studies in Germany and became the
adjunct director of the Amsterdam office. Joris had a desk at one end of the hallwayI
was at the other end. Outside of the building of CAPI Joris kept a loft where
he kept all his gear and photographic equipment. He was one of the first film
I was always willing to chip in and help. Because by helping, I could get out
of the office. Ivens Sr. would come by and ask me why I was away from the desk,
I would remind him that hes the one that wanted me to take care of his son!
I had very little to do with The Bridge, basically just made sure his camera was
loaded. But by the second year in the production of Rain, I already knew how to
handle a film camera. So one day when he had to go somewhere but it was forecasted
to rain hard, he said, Why dont you take the camera and see if you
can get some shots in this pouring rain. I did, but I was scared out of
my wits. We had to buy that film and it was in 25 meter roles, a fortune, so shots
in Rain were no longer than this. But I got some good shots in.
After one year or so, I took the liberty to start thinking for myself on that
side, and only because he was always away. If hes not doing it, maybe I
can. Joris never said, No. Well, I have to admit I rarely asked, because
I wanted more! I found it all so fascinating.
AMN: How did you get into the editing side of things?
HVD: I asked, Well, now what? And he said well now simply
put it in order, a simple order. And in a primitive way, the editing began for
me right there. Simply to put things in order. How does this begin? What do you
see then? What do you see then? I would think this, but I wouldnt dare cut
one frame of the film, because it was gold. Every piece was gold. And so on.
AMN: I understand these first films were editedorderedon Ivenss
window. . .
HVD: In order to view film, you had a glass and a winder here and a winder
there. Gradually, there was a little viewing machine. But in order to edit a film
like The Bridge, the shots were not much longer than this. The editing of both
The Bridge and Rain were rather simple. They were one-reelers, and practically
all the shots were used. The shots were hung from a wooden pole set against the
window. Joris would shift them back and forth until he was content with the order.
Only then were they spliced together. That way, not a single take was lost. Not
a bad idea.
AMN: You mentioned you were more involved in Rain. Did you help in the actual
cutting of film?
HVD: In spite of the fact that I had not really organized a whole
film, this time I had to act. Joris had gone to Russia to learn more from
Eisenstein and Pudovkin and those folks. All we did was cut from one thing to
another. Anybody else would have edited it completely differently. It had all
kinds of short scenes, so you used as much as possible. Simply use what goes from
here to there without a shock. I did a great deal of that. You know, Joris didnt
have patience. He wanted to go out with his camera.
AMN: So because film was gold you just wanted to use it all?
HVD: Well, sometimes thats all there was. And sometimes he couldnt
buy anymore and we couldnt steal anymore. I mean, we both borrowed
from the firm!
AMN: That pretty much sums up the history of independent documentary!
HVD: I guess its very common. It was only Flaherty who had so much
to play with.
AMN: Id like to press you on the editing of Rain. Are you saying
you resisted cutting it into smaller segments and simply arranged what you had
in an appropriate order?
HVD: Well, we never cut it in smaller pieces, however, we did a great deal
of rearranging. And automatically you know what you have, and I find that you
often know what needs to follow, but it isnt there. But you know its
there somewhere in the scenes you shot earlier. So you find it and see what you
can do with it.
AMN: Do you think this method may also have something to do with the subject
matter? Rain has this smooth feel.
HVD: Well, naturally it was smooth. Rain took a long time to edit, and
even by the time the music came along we threw around an awful lot of stuff.
AMN: What was the music for Rain?
HVD: It was Lou Lichtveld, a modern composer at the time. And then there
was that new thing, the use of subjective sound and music. His brother, Dr. Willem
Ivens, a highly respected medical doctor, was interested in all those scientific
things. He came and saw what I was up to. (His brother was the main protector
of Joris because if Joris was aspiring to something artful he should be able to
do it, even if the brother didnt condone all the things Joris did in normal
lifebut he kicked him around once in a while.) And what was I up to? I didnt
know a thing. It was all intuition. One problem after another I had to solve,
because there was no machinery for it. And it was so fascinating! And I didnt
know that I couldnt do it. If someone had asked me if I could make a film,
I would say, I have never even seen a film! But through this introduction
to it, I began to imagine all the minor stuff that you could do with it, and what
it meant. It was one of the greatest pieces of education Ive ever had.
AMN: You must have learned a lot at Filmliga, too.
HVD: Yes, but it was that problem solving that made me, for editing especially,
because I had to start from scratch. There were nothing but these miserable Hollywood
films. That was a totally different kind of editing, because those things are
completely dominated by how far they have to walk, this way or that way or what
they are talking about.
AMN: Its decided by the narrative.
HVD: Its totally different from documentary, were youve got
all this material thats basically unrelated at the time of shooting. Or
when I get a man like Flaherty who overshoots enormously, where his shooting is
really very good, you know, when theres very little you can really watch
But on the other hand, because when you are handed 325,000 feet of film then its
another problem. I mastered that, too. I have my ways of doing that. I look and
look and look and look, and there are certain things that are out. You have to
look over things over and over again, and ask what does it tell you? And so when
I choose something, its because it told me something. And then ask, can
I use it somewhere? At least I have to keep it in my mind constantly because if
I get more material, I have to consider if I can use it in this new context. I
have a memory for those things.
AMN: Id like to ask you about Filmliga. Where you in on the creation
HVD: Yes. But because that came gradually because there wasnt a room in
CAPI. I had to be at all the screenings, because I had to run the projectors.
I had to figure out the speed, doing it by hand, you know.
AMN: And you also acted as translator.
HVD: Yes, of course, that was when people came to talk, and theyd
have their great shouting matches. Loud, filthy content. If everybody spoke so
fast, it was hardly a literal translation. That was fun, and there again I learned
so much. No film school could have taught me so much.
AMN: Yes, as a teacher, Im very jealous.
HVD: Oh really? But there it was. The fact was, Joris was an uncontrolled
and uncontrolable person. Everyone shouted at everyone. Always very excited. Everyones
very exciting. It was wild! Exciting! If you get an Eisenstein and a Vertov and
a Joris or some other person in Holland, anyone that thought they knew about film,
theyd have a shouting party. With friends from Germany, Joris could communicate
very well. But when it came to Russian I got stuck with it, because most of the
Russians could speak French. Since it was their second language, thank goodness
they spoke a little slower.
AMN: To return to editing, even when someone is self-taught they have to study.
How did you start studying your craft?
HVD: Joris did the shooting, at which I was not always present. But when the
time that Joris disappeared for something, as was usual, well, I must say I took
on responsibilities without being asked very often. Because he was away, what
could I do? I wasnt going to sit there. From the beginning, I wasnt
the kind of person to do nothing. After all, I wasnt going to wait if it
was my job to help him. (Not that his father was very happy with it, but that
was another matter.) I wasnt about to discuss what I could and couldnt
do if he, every time, was happy enough that it was done and that I could do it.
It meant that he could go away a little longer and shoot here and there, and it
kept him out of my ears.
Anyway, I studied movement, the way things move in the frame. I only saw things
in still images, because we didnt have a moviola, only a light table between
two winders. But to get a sense about walking, and where do you walk, and where
do you make the cut? How does the movement work? To get a sense for this, I bought
a mirror on the Jewish market and was always busy picking things up, or moving
in front of this mirror. Where is the best place to cut from a long shot of a
walking person to part of the same person walking nearby? I was walking and turning
in front of the mirror.
AMN: To practice editing!
HVD: To practice editing and know where to cut. I also had to be very careful,
because we didnt have the money to print new shots. I would make certain
motions in front of the mirror, for instance, pointing, walking, running, climbing
and that sort of thing. Then Id think about where the best place to cut
on movement was.
Thats how I got the name of the dancing editor. Joriss friends would
come in, see me and say, Oh, theres the dancer editor again.
Theyd make fun of me, and Id say, OK, you boys. Just wait until
you try it yourself. (I was a very good dancer probably because of the same
Another reason I got this name was becausesince all we had was a light tableI
would hold the strip of film with one hand, and pull it through the fingers of
my other hand to see how the image moved and changed. [She imitates the gesture,
which sends one hand in a graceful arc into the air.AMN] I would really
do this, shifting my finger to adjust for things and see what they did. For human
bodies, how does one walk? Like this, and this. Piece by piece by piece. So this
is how I started. But it changed later on with the moviola, where I could see
everything and how it moved. And go back and forth and back and forth. It made
it much easier.
AMN: Just after Philips Radio (1931), you participated on Borinage. I find
it very curious, because the editing styles are so different. The former is close
to Soviet montage, while the latter is so straightforward.
HVD: It was so straightforward because thats all there was.
AMN: What do you mean?
HVD: I mean there were so little outs. We used everything they shot. Borinage
was under police protection, and we didnt have outs. We kept it simple because
it was just what happened. For example, that little march had so few shots because
people with clubs were standing only a couple feet away.
AMN: Did this change also have something to do with the fact that it was
so political? This straightforward approach?
HVD: Well, it was straightforward because of the lack of money. It was
straightforward from the editors point of view because there wasnt
anything more. And if thats the case, there wasnt anything else to
make it beautiful. Id say 95% of the shots were used in their entirety and
put together in a style that was the least shocking. Or to put it more positively,
what we had was used in the best possible visual manner. You do it in the least
shocking way thats pictorial.
AMN: Its really the opposite of Philips Radio where there are lots
of shots in a complex montage.
HVD: A lot of things you can make.
AMN: The boxes tumbling up and down at the endyou dont have
a story, so it frees the visual aspects of editing.
HVD: But Borinage was a kind of political film. I was never very happy
with political films.
AMN: Well, Ivenss career really turns at that point.
HVD: Thats right, and so does Eislers. So Eisler in particular
said he wanted agitation. And Joris said, Well, agitation. Why not?
And it brought him another film. I mean thats a little bit of a. . . but
it was true. Whatever came, he would do it. And in this particular period the
agitation, political things were about the only way an independent artist could
use the medium of film. Because no one would give him a lot of money to make a
picture, so he did these political films where the money would come in ten dollars
at a timeand from what you could grab from your fathers shop.
AMN: But its curious that with this turn to the political, Ivenss
filmmaking itself became less experimental.
HVD: I dont know, because Im not a political person. Joris
was the man who shot, and who talked blah blah blah with all his comrades, and
I was the woman who put it all together. And I did not do it for his pleasure
or anyone elses but my own. Because it was fascinating, and I had a chance
right there, and I didnt mind doing it. And I learned a lot and I figured
out a lot, and I have a lot of imagination myself.
AMN: In Borinage there are these shifts between fictional and documentary
scenes. Was it different cutting those two kinds of sequences?
HVD: No. I wouldnt think so. For me its all beauty. As beautiful
as possible. And that goes with my feeling for what is beautiful.
AMN: Actually, one of the shocks that that film holds is the contrast between
the astounding poverty and the beauty of its rendering. Those huge heaps of coal,
HVD: So once in a while you get someone who comes along and says, How
can you make something so horrible so beautiful? And I say, I dont
know, but there is beauty in horror. I didnt do it because it was
beautiful. I do not get any satisfaction out of things that are horrible. Maybe
sometimes its necessary to show such things, but very seldom. Im a
person that remains a person, and the conditions that are inhuman are far more
valuable than any corpse or any destruction. Because then you get to the point
when decent human beings are the ones suffering, not beaten-up corpses.
AMN: In WWII you worked in the Capra unit on Know Your Enemy: Japan before
it was discontinued. The Capra unit had access to many of these kinds of images.
Was there a sense of a line people shouldnt cross? Images that were so violent
they should not be shown to the public in films? We were talking about how some
horrible images are beautiful, and about how theres an ethics about using
some of these images. But during a war some of these ethical questions were downplayed
and the level of violence skyrocketed. So Im wondering if there were certain
kinds of images that you just would not use.
HVD: It would depend on the individual filmmaker. When the footage came
in there it was in the billions of feetmore than with Flaherty evenand
there was such an incredible amount of violence. (And they didnt spare me
because I was a woman. Theyd just as soon say, Oh its a woman,
get her out, just to find someone who was a little lazier.) Anyway, I wasnt
picking images just because they were violent. Or because there was a broken up
person or whatever. That was totally unnecessary, because I have given more attention
to the person who did it than to what he did. Narration can substitute for the
image, because how many broken people can you see? One may shock you, but after
that it doesnt mean anything anymore.
AMN: In Know Your Enemy: Japan, its well-known that the production fell
apart and Ivens left. But what exactly happened on that film?
HVD: It didnt get anywhere. This is where we went and were supposed
to work on this thing. It was toward the end of the war, and Joris was there along
with Herb Foreman, Frank Capra, John Huston... The government could not make up
its mind about what to do with Japan. These are the politicians. In the meantime,
we sat down and watched footage. Oh my goodness, there were millions of things
from Japan. And the Japanese themselves had filmed practically everything. I was
looking at film endlessly, but actually doing very little. And Joris, as usual,
went all over the place trying get his next thing in place and so on and so forth.
Capra was there. But I was the only one who was getting films ready for projection,
and just sit through it and sit through it. And I had a crew of five or six soldiers
who still were left over from another film, and it really didnt get anywhere
besides endless screenings. It was finally shelved and used for stock shots on
AMN: What was your impression of the films from Japan? Did they include
both fiction and documentary?
HVD: Anything! So you get to see too much. And Capra, we never saw. He
was too busy and the war was basically over. And Joris was trying to find another
job. And he was going to make a thing with Greta Garbo. So everybody was gone
but me. And I didnt really want to be there, but Philip Dunne was a Hollywood
producer and we had a nice relationship, and he said, How would you like
to make a film after the war? I said, Sure, and got out of there.
Thats how I got to direct my first film, New Review #2 (1945), which has
nothing to do with Joris.
Helen van Dongen
||We Are Building (Wy Bouwen, Dir. Joris
Ivens): General assistant, assistant editor
Zuiderzee (Dir. Joris Ivens, Produced by the Government of The Netherlands):
||Philips Radio (Dir. Joris Ivens): Co-editor
||New Earth (Dir. Joris Ivens):
||Borinage (Dir. Joris Ivens and Henry Storck): Editor (Note: For the subsequent Russian-language version)
Daily Life (Dir. Hans Richter): Editor
||Spain in Flames: Editor, Producer
||The Spanish Earth (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
||The 400 Million (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
||Power and the Land (Dir. Joris Ivens):
||Peoples of Indonesia: Editor, director
||Know Your Enemy: Japan: Co-editor
||Louisiana Story (Dir. Robert Flaherty):
||Of Human Rights: Director, producer, editor