Niels Pagh Andersen on his book, career, and views of documentary cinema

    • Festival
    • November 23, 2021
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    The legendary Danish editor, who has just released his first book Order in Chaos, gave a lively IDFAcademy talk with IDFA Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia. There, the pair reflected on Andersen's career beginnings, his understanding of creative partnership with the director, the switch from analogue to digital technology, how he found himself in documentary editing, and his view of often corrupted and commodified terms such as storyline, context, and subtext.

    The full title of Andersen's book is Order in Chaos: Storytelling and editing in documentary film, so Nyrabia asked him how he became a documentary specialist who went on to edit such iconic films as 3 Rooms of Melancholia, The Act of Killing, and The Look of Silence.

    Andersen related how he was lucky to start working as an assistant with one of the most important Danish editors at the time, Christian Hartkopp.

    "I was working with him and at one point he said I was ready to work as an editor on my own," he recalled. "I didn't believe I was ready but I was learning by doing it. There was an actor who was doing his directing debut [Niels Gaup and his 1987 film Pathfinder], which I was lucky to edit, and suddenly this film was nominated for an Oscar and it was a huge success. My wet dream had become reality, I was hired to do a big Disney production in Hollywood, and I was doing it with the passion that young men have for football or rock music.

    "But then I lost it. I lost the magic, and I was drinking like a madman because I was working like hell and traveling all the time."

    After that, Andersen had to start all over. And in working with all kinds of directors on all kinds of films, he discovered that in editing documentaries he was learning something about how the world is, and being confronted with his own prejudices.

    "People who are making documentaries are another kind of people," he said. "And my job is to help another person fulfil their vision and understand them. So these directors were also people who wanted to tell the world something that was important to them.

    "I learned a lot from fiction, but as I write in the book, in fiction I learned to play the instrument, and in documentaries I found my tune."

    From linear to digital; from professional to human communication

    Nyrabia next asked Andersen about his experience with shooting and editing formats changing through the decades.

    "If we talk about the shift from analogue to digital, digital gave us a lot of very good things, but it is also brought a lot of bad habits. Directors and cinematographers are not making decisions at the shooting. They postpone decisions and just make successive different versions. I'm also doing different versions, but my fifth version is always better than the first," he warned.

    Asked by Nyrabia how he understands his role as an editor and partner in the creative process, Andersen said it was very important to him to know what the director is like as a human being.

    "It's as important if they prefer Mozart or Beethoven as it is if they prefer close-up or wide shot. If I know them as human beings, then I can make their film."

    Speaking about the fundamental functions of the editor, he continued: "Why an editor? First of all, we haven't been on the shoot, we are the first audience, and secondly, we have to be loyal dialogue partners who challenge the director."

    Challenging yourself

    "In the last few years I've been wanting to edit films that I don't know how, stuff I haven't tried before," Andersen said of his creative progression and search for a challenge.

    Nyrabia countered with the question, why do we have to always follow the same formula in ordering elements in a film? He considers Andersen one of the founders of the storytelling structure, and yet again, the editor wants to challenge it.

    "But isn't it wonderful that we are getting wiser," Andersen quipped. "For me, life is a learning process. I started in fiction, and later documentaries became structured more like fiction films, with the three-act set-up.

    "But I have been so privileged that I met at the right moment Pirjo Honkasalo and her project 3 Rooms of Melancholia. That's where a new thing started for me, and later, of course, The Act of Killing was something I had never tried before, on all levels. I was lucky to find the right project which pushed me somewhere else. And I can say about myself that I'm curious and I'm not afraid."

    After discussing "storyline" and "dramaturgy" in relation to channels of distribution and opportunities for funding, where he believes these terms are being corrupted and commodified, Andersen reflected on a very interesting parallel between the single character-driven documentaries and the way human beings see themselves in the Western world.

    "It fits together. We separated ourselves from social obligations. A hundred years ago, if your father was a carpenter, you were a carpenter too. Today we see ourselves as kings of our worlds. It's us who, in our heads, are in charge of our own success, but this is nonsense which fits into this single-character narrative. So it's not only televisions and commercial projects connected to the global market that are influencing the documentary form; it's this whole paradigm," he explained.

    Subtext, context, and authentic moment

    After a question from the audience, Andersen went on to elaborate that stories do not necessarily have to have a three-act structure.

    "There are many ways to tell stories," he said. "But what human beings are fantastic at is reading each other. The whole subtextual level is the great power of cinema magic—ourability to grasp that.

    "Also, what I think we have in documentaries, is the desire to have this 'authentic now,'" he continued. "What is an authentic moment? In psychology, it is when you lose control, when nobody is in control over the situation. As filmmakers, we are pushing ourselves into situations where we are not in control. And then either because we have a storyline or a very artistic vision that is controlling our look at the world, we should be better at watching and interpreting the world. That's our uniqueness."

    Asked about the apparent contrast between subtext and context in the documentary industry and filmmaking lingo, Andersen wanted to clarify: "Context is to find the right information needed to get to the emotion of the story. That's what's needed in a film. The whole editing process is about cleaning, taking away, because then we go in depth. Too many films are too complicated, so we never go down the emotional experience where audiences become a part of creative process as well."

    The talk also touched upon the topic of the performative age in which we are living, which Andersen says has made reaching this authentic moment much harder, as well as the importance of being humble towards the documentary film protagonists and audiences alike.

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