© Philippe Mangeot
© Philippe Mangeot

Interview

Claire Atherton

By Yonca Talu

Chantal Akerman’s frequent editor of three-plus decades talks about the process, and honor, of working with the celebrated Belgian filmmaker
on a trio of her later documentaries, South, From the Other Side,
and
Down There.

Atherton & Akerman
Atherton & Akerman

Chantal Akerman’s closest collaborator from the mid-’80s onward, Claire Atherton practices editing as an art of being in the present that blends intuition, sensitivity, and rigor. In South (1999), From the Other Side (2002), and Down There (2006), a trio of formally daring documentaries that belong to Akerman’s later period, Atherton masterfully molds images and sounds into gripping explorations of personal and collective memory. Centered upon the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, South captures the reverberations of historical trauma in landscapes, while From the Other Side adresses the plight of Mexicans in search of a better life across the Arizona border. Set almost entirely inside a Tel Aviv apartment, Down There offers a journey into Akerman’s own soul as she reflects on her Jewish heritage and ambivalent relationship to Israel.

I spoke with Atherton about her creative process on South, From the Other Side, and Down There, and her artistic partnership with the late Belgian filmmaker and pioneer of modern cinema.


How was your experience of watching the footage for
South before embarking on the editing process? Had you ever been to the American South, or did you discover it through Chantal Akerman’s images?

I discovered it through Chantal Akerman’s images. Chantal had gone to the American South to scout locations for a project she had in mind—an adaptation of James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head—and when she came back, she asked me to clear my schedule for a few weeks to see whether a film could emerge from what she had shot. When I watch footage for the first time, I try to be nonjudgmental and silence the little voice inside me that wants to make sense of everything right away, in order to be present and in a state of osmosis with the images. For South, the experience was all the more powerful since we didn’t watch the footage with the intention of immediately making a movie out of it. I remember the long tracking shots of the countryside with the piercing sounds of insects and a feeling of anxiety building up as they unfolded. I also remember the shots of trees with their overwhelming history [of Black lynchings], and the contrast between the silence and apparent calm of the landscapes and the violence they concealed. Our first encounter with the images influenced the film’s construction, but we were missing the footage of James Byrd Jr.’s memorial service, which came in after we had started editing. Perhaps the reason for this delay was that Chantal and her crew had borrowed a different camera to shoot the memorial service, because I know that she found out about it upon her arrival in Jasper that day—a fabulous coincidence that really reflects the way Chantal worked. She was someone who didn’t prepare for things but let them come to her, someone who welcomed fate and triggered events by being in the moment.

You and Chantal Akerman had made a habit of listening to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” while editing South, though you didn’t end up incorporating it into the film.

We did listen to “Strange Fruit” a lot, but I don’t think we ever discussed incorporating it into the film. We would meet in the afternoon and listen to it before returning to the editing room, and it’s almost as though the trees in South carry the song within themselves. Of course, I heard some people in France say: “Not everyone here knows the song, so how can the trees carry it?” But it seems to me that the impact of South goes beyond knowing “Strange Fruit” and its lyrics, that seeing the image of a dead tree is nerve-racking in and of itself.

South
South

That’s also true of South’s final sequence, the seven-minute backward tracking shot of the road on which James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death. Did you and Chantal Akerman intuitively agree on the duration of that concluding shot?

Yes, we did. South was shot and edited on DV, by copying the footage from one videotape to another. But the equipment we used didn’t perform very well, nor did it allow us much flexibility, so we got access to an Avid [digital editing system] for a week and made some adjustments. We had been told that the final shot was too long, so we tried to shorten it. We did our best to make it work, either by cutting it sooner or starting it somewhere else. But the shot always ended right when we were beginning to settle into a mood and felt anecdotal, whereas now the audience has enough time to revisit everything that came before. And the fact that the tracking shot of the road is introduced at the movie’s beginning suggests that it will reappear later. When South was released, a friend of mine told me: “What a beautiful film. But you went a bit far with the last shot.” He doesn’t think so anymore, but I understand why he might have said that. There is indeed something unbearable about South’s last shot because it feels like that road goes right through our bodies.

What also makes the shot unbearable is that it takes us through someone’s agony.

Absolutely.

Unlike From the Other Side, to which it bears many resemblances, South doesn’t feature Chantal Akerman’s voice, as either interviewer or narrator. Was that a conscious choice on your and Chantal Akerman’s part?

No, it wasn’t. Chantal was extremely moved by James Byrd Jr.’s sister’s tribute to him at the memorial service. So as I’m talking to you now, I realize that the sister’s voice is somehow [a surrogate for] Chantal’s. One might also argue that the protagonist of South is the landscape itself, which was Chantal’s starting point and which gradually becomes imbued with the echoes of history and the interviewees’ stories. In South, the present speaks of the past, and we built the film upon a duality, a dialectical relationship between the two. In the case of From the Other Side, Chantal was obsessed with how certain individuals made their own laws and sought to eliminate others on the grounds that they were dirty. She wanted to go out and talk to people, and that’s why From the Other Side opens with an interview, whose rhythm is set by Chantal’s own voice.

“In South, the present speaks of the past, and we built the film upon a duality, a dialectical relationship between the two.”

One interviewee I found particularly moving in From the Other Side was Delfina Maruri Miranda, the 78-year-old mother whose son died while attempting to cross over to the United States. There’s something very poignant about her wiping her tears away after sharing her story, then engaging in small talk with Chantal Akerman about her upcoming chores.

Yes... We carry the weight of our sufferings on a daily basis, and yet we must go on living.

Another editor might have cut that moment out, but you really honor this woman by leaving it in.

Chantal and I never rationalized any of this. But I think characters exist beyond the words they say, just like the trees and road in South exist beyond [their status as] trees and a road—they become compelling once we realize that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

You make evocative use of Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, Op. 34, No. 2 during the interview with the married couple living on a ranch in Arizona. There’s a discrepancy between the music’s melancholy and the husband’s aggressive and racist comments.

That was one of the hardest scenes to edit in From the Other Side. We were so uncomfortable with being in a position of judging and pointing a finger at the bad guys. And this uneasiness can be felt in the hesitant way in which Chantal shot the sequence, which isn’t framed frontally like the other interviews. But when we added the Chopin waltz, it created a space between us and them, and it fictionalized them, in the sense that they began to sound like characters rather than witnesses. And there’s a tenderness to the music that leads us to be almost moved by their fear and the white man’s eagerness to protect his wife. We almost feel sorry for them, but then we step back and wonder how we could have felt sorry for them in the first place. So the scene really asks us to reexamine our own humanity.

How did you conceive the installation for From the Other Side, which premiered at the 2002 Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany?

Chantal wanted to show From the Other Side’s ending [a tracking shot of a Los Angeles highway at night], narrated first in Spanish, then in English, on a giant screen in the desert, at the border between Mexico and the United States. And she wanted to film that screening and broadcast it live in the last room of the installation. Back then it wasn’t as simple as today to communicate and exchange images between continents, but we managed to make it work, and it was really magnificent. The screen was surrounded by trees and mountains, and the shot of the highway slowly faded from view as night transitioned into day. But there were so many interruptions during the live transmission that we decided to show an edited version of the screening instead. In the installation’s first room, From the Other Side screened on a monitor on the ground, and the middle room followed the same principle as D’Est, au bord de la fiction [From the East: Bordering on Fiction, the installation for From the East], with triptychs of monitors mounted on pedestals on which segments of the movie screened on a loop. Deep into the room were placed monitors that showed images of border patrolmen at work, and we used stroboscope lighting to render the experience even more chaotic. Unfortunately, this installation doesn’t exist in its original form anymore, but there are several variations, including the most popular one, Une voix dans le désert [A Voice in the Desert], which only consists of the last room.

From the Other Side
From the Other Side

Chantal Akerman regarded South and From the Other Side as installments in a trilogy inaugurated by From the East in 1993. How would you compare your approach to editing those three films?

It’s true that Chantal regarded them as a trilogy, and they were assembled in a DVD box set along with Down There. So does that make them a quartet? [Laughs] Although my approach to editing does not change from film to film, I think what sets From the East apart is how mysterious the whole process was for Chantal and me. We constructed that movie with an enormous attention to formal and musical elements, such as colors, contrasts, convergence lines, diagonals, camera movements, rhythms, on-beats, and off-beats. A 360-degree shot would be paired with a static one, and an interior with an exterior, and that’s what we talked about. We never talked about what the film’s long lines and the faces of the people waiting in them reminded us of. It would have been dangerous and would have weighed us down to say: “Oh, it’s like the concentration camps.” So we maintained this mystery until the creation of the installation’s 25th monitor, for which Chantal felt the need to put words on From the East’s images and convey what they evoked for her.

You once said that the rushes of No Home Movie [2015], Chantal Akerman’s final film, should be shown in film schools as examples of her singular way of operating the camera and setting up a frame. Did you feel the same way about Down There, which Chantal Akerman also shot herself?

Definitely. Chantal and I would watch the footage for Down There and define the shots using very simple words, such as “beautiful,” “powerful,” or “too much.” One day, Chantal had an appointment, so I went to her apartment to watch the rushes on my own. But I didn’t feel anything as I watched the shots, which seemed a bit forced and demonstrative—I didn’t say “beautiful” or “powerful” to myself. So I started panicking and assumed I must be sensitive to Chantal’s presence next to me, which pervaded the images, as it were. But then the phone rang in one of the shots, and a male voice picked it up and said: “Hello, Chantal isn’t here today.” And I thought: “This is incredible. Chantal wasn’t the one filming this whole time.” That’s when I understood that images have a secret and sacred meaning that must be respected. It’s something that can’t be taught. Images are imbued with the story of the person who makes them, and every time I see Chantal’s images, I realize what a gift it was to work with her.

How did you tackle Chantal Akerman’s voiceover narration in Down There, which immerses us in her inner world in the confined space of a Tel Aviv apartment?

Down There is about Chantal’s difficult, almost impossible relationship to a place, and like with South, she wasn’t sure whether the footage she had shot could yield a film. So she reached out to me. I loved how Chantal’s [off-screen] sounds around the apartment sculpted time, so we recorded more of those sounds of daily life, like her picking up and putting down a glass, as well as some of her phone conversations. Her narration was recorded in pieces and always in the morning, before her voice became raspy from smoking. [Laughs] We knew that Chantal’s voiceover shouldn’t come in too early because we had to see her fascination with the neighbors first, especially with the one we called “the man with the plants” and who creates genuine suspense. You can’t help but wonder: “What is he doing? When will he come out again?” And you start telling yourself stories about him. But it’s hard for me to say more regarding the narration in Down There, because I think the connection between an image and a voice is totally inexplicable—you can’t place a voice over an image unless there’s a meeting between the two.

Perhaps we can conclude by talking about how your practice of editing is rooted in your interest in Taoist philosophy.

I hadn’t drawn a link between my interest in Taoist philosophy and my practice of editing until about 10 years ago, when I began answering questions about how I came to editing, and it was a fascinating discovery. In Taoism, meaning emerges from emptiness, and it’s much more effective to suggest than to show or demonstrate. When you suggest, you put in motion, and putting in motion is the start of a politics and even of a resistance. There’s also the fact that the Chinese language is based on the combination of images that create meaning, which is really the essence of editing. For example, you combine the image of a roof with that of a little pig, and it means home, or you combine the image of a woman with that of a child, and it means good.

I’m also very attached to Chinese poetry, which uses words that describe things that can be experienced with the senses, like colors, seasons, or substances, rather than words that describe psychological states, like sadness. There’s a poem by Li Bai that I’m very fond of and whose first verse is: “Steps of jade / Appear white dew.” “Jade” evokes a woman, so we imagine one sitting on the front steps of her house, and “white dew” evokes dawn, which suggests that he spent the entire night waiting for her. There are no pronouns, nor is there any contextualization. There are only images and sounds, just like in editing.

Translated by Yonca Talu.

Yonca Talu is a filmmaker and film critic living in Paris. She grew up in Istanbul and graduated from NYU Tisch. She is a regular contributor to Film Comment magazine.

Down There
Down There