Interview with

Helen van Dongen

Interviewer: Abé Mark Nornes

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 employer’s 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 (1948).

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 documentarist’s emphasis on representing reality—thinking about editing requires us to consider the thorough mediation of the filmmaker’s 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

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 owner’s 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 hallway—I 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 fanatics around.

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 he’s 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 don’t 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 he’s 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 we’ll 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 wouldn’t 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 edited—ordered—on Ivens’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s all there was. And sometimes he couldn’t buy anymore and we couldn’t steal anymore. I mean, we both “borrowed” from the firm!

AMN: That pretty much sums up the history of independent documentary!

HVD: I guess it’s very common. It was only Flaherty who had so much to play with.

AMN: I’d 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 isn’t there. But you know it’s 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 didn’t condone all the things Joris did in normal life—but he kicked him around once in a while.) And what was I up to? I didn’t 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 didn’t know that I couldn’t 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 I’ve 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: It’s decided by the narrative.

HVD: It’s totally different from documentary, were you’ve got all this material that’s 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 there’s very little you can really watch and say,“yuck!”

But on the other hand, because when you are handed 325,000 feet of film then it’s 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, it’s 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: I’d like to ask you about Filmliga. Where you in on the creation of it?

HVD: Yes. But because that came gradually because there wasn’t 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 they’d 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, I’m 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. Everyone’s 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, they’d 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 wasn’t going to sit there. From the beginning, I wasn’t the kind of person to do nothing. After all, I wasn’t 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 wasn’t about to discuss what I could and couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 I’d think about where the best place to cut on movement was.

That’s how I got the name of the dancing editor. Joris’s friends would come in, see me and say, “Oh, there’s the dancer editor again.” They’d make fun of me, and I’d say, “OK, you boys. Just wait until you try it yourself.” (I was a very good dancer probably because of the same thing.)

Another reason I got this name was because—since all we had was a light table—I 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 that’s 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 didn’t 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 editor’s point of view because there wasn’t anything more. And if that’s the case, there wasn’t anything else to make it beautiful. I’d 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 that’s pictorial.

AMN: It’s 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 end—you don’t 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, Ivens’s career really turns at that point.

HVD: That’s right, and so does Eisler’s. So Eisler in particular said he wanted agitation. And Joris said, “Well, agitation. Why not?” And it brought him another film. I mean that’s 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 time—and from what you could grab from your father’s shop.

AMN: But it’s curious that with this turn to the political, Ivens’s filmmaking itself became less experimental.

HVD: I don’t know, because I’m 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 else’s but my own. Because it was fascinating, and I had a chance right there, and I didn’t 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 wouldn’t think so. For me it’s 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, etc.

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 don’t know, but there is beauty in horror.” I didn’t do it because it was beautiful. I do not get any satisfaction out of things that are horrible. Maybe sometimes it’s necessary to show such things, but very seldom. I’m 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 shouldn’t 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 there’s 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 I’m 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 feet—more than with Flaherty even—and there was such an incredible amount of violence. (And they didn’t spare me because I was a woman. They’d just as soon say, “Oh it’s a woman, get her out,” just to find someone who was a little lazier.) Anyway, I wasn’t 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 doesn’t mean anything anymore.

AMN: In Know Your Enemy: Japan, it’s well-known that the production fell apart and Ivens left. But what exactly happened on that film?

HVD: It didn’t 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 didn’t get anywhere besides endless screenings. It was finally shelved and used for stock shots on other productions.

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 didn’t 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. That’s how I got to direct my first film, New Review #2 (1945), which has nothing to do with Joris.

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Helen van Dongen

Selected Filmography

  1930_ We Are Building (“Wy Bouwen”, Dir. Joris Ivens): General assistant, assistant editor
Zuiderzee (Dir. Joris Ivens, Produced by the Government of The Netherlands): Camera
  1931 Philips Radio (Dir. Joris Ivens): Co-editor
  1933 New Earth (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
  1934 Borinage (Dir. Joris Ivens and Henry Storck): Editor (Note: For the subsequent Russian-language version)
Daily Life (Dir. Hans Richter): Editor
  1936 Spain in Flames: Editor, Producer
  1937 The Spanish Earth (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
  1939 The 400 Million (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
  1941 Power and the Land (Dir. Joris Ivens): Editor
  1943 Peoples of Indonesia: Editor, director
  1944 Know Your Enemy: Japan: Co-editor
  1948 Louisiana Story (Dir. Robert Flaherty): Editor
  1950 Of Human Rights: Director, producer, editor