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Screen Edge 2017: Creative, Compelling, Cinematic Docs

For a forum session focused on story and structure, this hour was quite rambling – but nevertheless full of little gems.

Swiss-born newly naturalized American Alexandre O. Philippe has been making films focussed on pop culture for 13 years. Two of his previous features in this vein have screened at the Doc Edge Festival, with him present for both. The People vs George Lucas opened the festival in 2010; Doc of the Dead played the 2014 edition. This year he returns with his 78/52, a meticulous deconstruction of the infamous shower scene from Hitchcock’s 1960 movie Psycho.

78 shots were used in 52 seconds of screen time, in case you were wondering. 52 seconds that took seven days to shoot, done completely separately from the rest of the film.

First-time Doc Edge guest Jean Tsien was born in Taiwan and emigrated to the USA as a youngster. She’s spent 35 years there as an editor, producer, and consultant – but claims she is still learning. Back in 1983 Jean thought she wanted to be a cinematographer – but just working as an assistant camera person she found too stressful. How she regards editing features as less stressful might be a mystery to some…

Jean’s initial inspiration was a 14-minute documentary film called Sewing Woman (1982) directed by Arthur Dong, which tells the story of a woman determined to escape an arranged marriage in China to find a new life in San Francisco. It was shot mute, in black and white, with archival footage and an actor reading a scripted voice-over. What was the appeal? It hooked her instantly – there was a story.

Alexandre began, as a film should, with a premise – that in making a film we are making a promise to the audience. Cinema is totally different to a museum or an art gallery. If you don’t like a painting in a gallery, you can simply move off to another and still enjoy the overall experience. With cinema you are committing to 90-plus minutes. It’s not that it’s better, it’s just a different experience. With a log-line, a poster and so forth, we are creating expectations. We must either fulfill those expectations or give the audience something even better. Hitchcock was brilliant at creating expectations and then subverting them. 

Then, of course, there is the responsibility to funders to fulfill their expectations.

We have to reach out to an audience and not condescend or patronize, claimed Alexandre. There is nothing worse than making someone leave a cinema feeling stupid. After all, are there any directors out there who don’t make a film for an audience?

Jean echoed this with her assertion that as an editor one always thinks of the audience first. The other essential for her is to have trust and faith in the material. 

She then spoke of the Chinese versus the American approach to pace and rhythm, to which Alexandre responded with the observation that she has a very American approach. “Get into a scene as close to the crunch as possible, then out immediately.”

Jean responded with how it’s great to have a director who does think ahead – particularly about how to get into and how to get out of a scene.

A question about finding the appropriate length for a film again came back to the notion of integrity towards the story, to the film’s premise.

With one film of Alexandre’s, he felt an early version of 125 minutes was pretty tight, but it ended up being 91 minutes. Jean has made versions of one film that are 88, 58 and 52 minutes – but all versions are fine as far as she’s concerned because they each maintain the integrity of the story. That integrity of story is equal to the integrity of the initial intent, from the beginning, as opposed to random exploring. But still leaving space for surprises.

Alexandre asked, “What is your premise? What to include, what to exclude?”

If your premise is not clear, you can spend years wasting time. The premise is the idea that drives the narrative. There are a million ways to express any given idea. Structure is what expresses the premise in the most powerful way.

In apparent contrast, Jean cited Miss Sharon Jones, which she edited. The film started out as a musician’s story; but then the filmmakers found out about her cancer, and it became a cancer story. But they didn’t want to sell it as a cancer story – so how did that affect the premise? Jean: “I do believe in having faith.”

The film was totally unscripted. “Your subject delivers the script to you!”

What then makes a film “cinematic” – compare Tarkovsky with the Sharon Jones film. What is in the frame? Sewing Woman was small and contained, but still cinematic.

Jean went on to describe editing as “framing diamonds in the rough”. A diamond has four elements; the carat (which is the weight), the colour, the clarity (story) and the cost. No two diamonds are alike. 



Following the dictum that a novel is never finished, only abandoned, Jean concluded by saying, “A film is never finished – it’s always taken away.”

When asked how they managed to stay objective when working for so long on a project, Jean’s response was “Short term memory – seriously!” The key for Alexandre is to work with an editor, with people, honest enough to push back.

“I am very opinionated in the edit room,” Jean says. Alexandre responds: “My editor is very opinionated – and I’m very thankful for that!”

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