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Interview with Yaël Bitton, Editing Lab Mentor

Interview with Yaël Bitton, Editing Lab Mentor

July, 21 - 2022

Yaël Bitton is an editor working internationally. She mentors and works with many emerging filmmakers, accompanying them in their creative process. She is also a consultant for Rough Cut Service, and a tutor at the HEAD in Geneva. Some of her credits include Invisible Demons (2021), which she co-wrote with Indian director Rahul Jain; Advocate (2019) by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche; and Radio Silence (2019) by Juliana Fanjul.

This interview talks about the specific socio-cultural contexts of documentary editing, her experience working with Asian filmmakers and storytelling, and some words of encouragement for young filmmakers and documentary editors.

How has your experience been so far, being a mentor at Docs by the Sea?

It’s lovely to be a mentor at Docs by the Sea. What is really interesting is that you deal with projects that you don’t necessarily deal with in other workshops, in the sense that the projects are further away with different problematics, different logics in terms of storytelling, and desires to tell story. Of course, it’s always tricky to do it online. Because when you talk about editing, there is something about the time of thinking that is really happening in real time. But, the participants are wonderful and very committed. So far so good.

What do you find special from the projects that you’re working with at the Editing Lab this year?

I have to say that the Island of the Winds is a very special project, in terms of being confronted with a reality that we seldom see or seldom have seen for a long time, which is the occurrence of the disease leprosy and the damages it has inflicted on people’s life, which is very, almost disturbing. At the same time, the story is a mirror of bigger problematics in the world, about the smaller people, the disadvantaged people, who cannot find the reasoning of the capital and the building of cities that needs to expand. I feel it’s a project that offers a lot of possibilities to tell a very deep story, not solely from an activist point of view, but from a humanistic point of view that I find very strong, with a very dedicated filmmaker, Ya-Ting. 

And my other project, Catching Them Young, is also very strong, in terms of the mirror it offers to reflect on how manipulation can happen on young people’s brains. This is happening in India in an ashram, in a very, very specific cultural context. But it could be a mirror for youth in the West with social media, which is another kind of indoctrination and co-optation of the cognitive brain. So, it offers a lot of reflections, even though both stories happen in very specific socio-cultural contexts.

You’ve been working globally as a film editor. Can you tell us more about this? In your experience working with many projects, what are usually the challenges for Asian filmmakers in terms of editing?

This is really interesting because I have been working with a particular Indian director for a bunch of years, whose name is Rahul Jain and we’ve made Machines together. And last year, we made Invisible Demons, which went to Cannes. And I’m working currently with another couple of Indian filmmakers. And I’ve been attracted to Asian cinema at large a lot. I think that the emotional emphasis is not necessarily in the same place because we don’t necessarily relate to emotions in the same manner, nor in narrative, plot lines, or in narrative desires. The questions of narrativities and dramaturgy may be very different relating to a sense of time, a sense of understanding, a sense of details. But at the same time, I think it’s really incredible for an editor who is non-Asian—and there are many Asian cultures, there is not solely an Asian culture, like there is no African culture or European culture. I have learned to look and listen differently. For me it’s a learning tool. Rather than imposing pre-fabricated solutions that would come from an all-encompassing way of telling stories, I think Asian filmmakers at large, in particular Indian filmmakers, may have a different desire to look at the world or their world in terms of storytelling aesthetics.

Is there any significant difference in dramaturgy between Southeast Asia and global projects?

Well, this is a really tricky question, because the question of globality, in the world we live in, is a Western concept. And it’s also a Western economy. These questions are a little bit like a cat biting its tail, because this desire and this concept to merge into the globality of the filmmaking world, and particularly the documentary filmmaking world, is imposed by the West in terms of financing also. We’ve had this discussion with my Indian filmmaker here, and this workshop [assumes] that you have European financing. These expectations impose onto the project a particular kind of desire to see a particular plot line developed, especially in terms of geopolitics. Whereas for within the original ontological project, the desire to tackle the story in that particular way may not be there. So it’s a really fine line to walk. And I think that if I had not been fed with the notion and working with Rahul in particular, and working also with African and Latino filmmakers, I may not be so sensitive right now to this fine line to walk. And this is why I constantly preface the discussion: for whom are we making this film for? Are we making the film for global audience for awareness and impact? Or are we making the film also and to reach out to more local audiences? But first and foremost, I remind everyone that we’re making a film. And the reason why Ozu or Hou Hsiao-hsien or Tsai Ming Liang reach out to us is that first and foremost, there are films. And the vector or the vessel of telling the story is emotional, more than anything else. I try to work with the filmmakers to reach this density of emotionality that is specific to each story. I think if we manage to do that, the so-called universality of films, then we permeate and reach out to many audiences.

What kind of stories do you look for? When you’re trying to decide on a project, what is it that would make you say, “Yes, this is a project that I would like to work on”?

That’s a really interesting question at this particular moment of my life! I think that first and foremost, what captivates me is the relationship that the filmmaker has with its subject matter, and how they talk about it. But more than anything else, is how they film and what they film. Meaning, it is what is contained in the corpus of images that speak out to me without any thinking or reflectioning around the film. Now, that being said, I’m often contacted to edit fairly political films. Very political films. For example, I edited Advocate, because I have a relationship with the Middle East, being connected to Israel with my own personal biography, so I’ve been tackling films from that zone of the world and these narratives. I’m often contacted to edit Latino films because I speak Spanish. Most of these films are often political, because people have a lot to say about that political framework. So interestingly, these so-called political stories demand a certain exercise, a practice of dialectics, and ideas that I like to apply. And I’m a frustrated philosophy, probably PhD student, who wanted to do a PhD in philosophy. So it’s a space for me to play with these ideas. 

However, I think that more and more nowadays, I like to go towards films that don’t want to say too much. But to work with directors like Rahul or this year with another Polish filmmaker I will work with, who have a very strong commitment towards their presence in the world with a camera, and through their unique gaze manage to capture zones of invisibility, or opaqueness that can be revealed through the camera. And also zones of tenderness and humour and kindness and harshness, all these palettes of nuances about our humanity that can still, you know, find an embodiment or presentation with a camera and sound. I’m very attached to the commitment of the gaze of the filmmaker. So of course, often I ask to see rushes. And if the rushes don’t fully convince me, I don’t do it. The rushes have to convince me. Otherwise, you know, when you are an editor, you spend many months working with materials. It’s a fine line to walk. But first and foremost, it also has to do with individuals. How individuals relate to people in general and to the world. And how we can share a little bit of a moment of life together, because that’s what it’s about, too, it’s a mutual nurturing basically.

Any words of encouragement you would like to say to young filmmakers and young documentary editors?

To young filmmakers, I would say that it takes time to learn to see. It is not something you can get from the get-go, you put a camera there and there is an objective reality that will happen in front of your lens. It doesn’t happen this way. It is not about getting the reality in the machine or in the camera. It’s about positioning yourself vis-à-vis  the world and understanding which point of view you choose. And it can be a nothing story like Lav Diaz’s, the Filipino filmmaker. He makes films with very, very long shots. Some people may not like it, but these films are definitely committed and commanding.

Now to editors, I will say that you need to want to spend hours grappling with doing and undoing and with listening and doubting. If you’re not prone to doubt, to dialecticise, or re-address issues all the time, spending eight hours a day doing that may be very difficult, because it’s really almost like practising violin, it’s like a high-end sport. It’s very demanding on the brain. It’s very demanding on the body because you’re sitting a lot. So you have to do sports on the side to sustain yourself for sure. I dance, I’m a dancer and a Yogi, so I really commit to that otherwise I couldn’t work with my brain. And you need to want to receive a lot of information and anxiety from the filmmakers, because filmmakers are very anxious in general. You need to be able to channel that and it’s about nobody’s ego. That’s also something to remember in the editorial. Our concern is the film. It is not our egos. It’s a film we’re making, and the format is inception that it will find.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.