To see / 4 November 2019

About D’Est

Editing Chantal Akerman's Film

It is tricky, and even a little risky, to talk about the birth of D’Est. One would have to forget all the paths opened up by the film and the installation. I remember Chantal [Akerman] saying that she wanted to film Eastern Europe, while she still had a chance. She had no clear intention, nothing to demonstrate, nothing to denounce nor to document. She had been there a year before and had experienced something familiar. And so she wanted to go back there and film everything that moved her. Especially faces.

It’s hard to explain what guides me when I put one image after another, when I cut a shot or place a sound. I don’t really have a method. What I can say is that, most of the time, I need to start at the beginning. Placing the first shot is like laying the foundation stone of a house: It’s nearly nothing, but at the same time it is momentous, because it’s a birth. There’s nothing, and then there is. Sometimes the first shot is obvious from logging the footage. Sometimes it takes a long time to emerge. The beginning of a film opens a space that brings out the subsequent shots.

I like to give myself over to the film’s temporality. I don’t want to know more than the film or to get ahead of it. I like us to discover and move forward together. The more the film grows, the more it’s the film that guides me—as if it existed in and of itself, forging its own path.

That’s why I need to be totally attentive to the material, and sometimes even to lose myself. The images and sounds cannot be twisted and turned, subjected to the necessity or logic of a pre-planned meaning. On the contrary, they are living matter that must be listened to, looked at, sculpted, associated, paced and joined with respect. With respect means without assigning them a role.

I remember editing D’Est (1993) with Chantal. It was like a composition, both in the musical and visual sense. We were sculpting in time and space, looking for the right rhythm. We were editing in the same way Chantal had shot the film, following our intuition, without trying to understand. We said simple things to each other about colour, clashes, ruptures, night and day, exterior and interior, violence, softness, the sound of footsteps in the snow or of tires screeching on icy roads. When we watched the long tracking shots of the faces of people waiting, we talked about their gazes, the slowness of their movements, smiles, beauty and sometimes sadness. But we never mentioned what these images made us think of. We could feel such associations, but if we had put them into words, the momentum would have slowed, weighing down our actions. We knew without knowing, and that worked for us. Words only appeared a year later, like echoes of the images, when we were editing the installation D’Est, au bord de la fiction (1995). These words became those of the installation’s twenty-fifth screen, as articulated by Chantal:

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, there were, there will be, there are at this very moment, / people whom history, which no longer even have a capital H, whom history has struck down, people who were waiting there, packed together to be killed, beaten or starved, or who walk without knowing where they are going, in groups or alone. / There is nothing to do. It is obsessive and I am obsessed. / Despite the cello, despite cinema. / Once the film is finished, I said to myself, So that’s what it was. That again.

Too often people think that, when editing, you have to start by working on the narrative and finding the film’s structure, and only then move on to its rhythm by refining the length of the shots and sequences. I find that impossible. That would be like separating content from form, thought from the perceptible. Rhythm is the heart of the film, its breath. It’s also the association of colours, shapes and lines. Henri Matisse said, ‘A successful painting is a condensation of controlled rhythms’. The search for the right rhythm is the creation and modelling of an emptiness, both temporal and spatial, in which a network of resonances, secret links and echoes is gradually created. If the rhythm is right, you can feel tremors, nearly impalpable movements that appear within a shot, and be moved by them without knowing why. These are the emotions that construct the narrative.

Working on rhythm is also listening to absence—in other words, working with images that don’t exist, and without trying to fill the gaps. It’s being wary of the reflex to be exhaustive and to avoid ‘solutions’ aimed at making up for ‘errors’ on the shoot. Sometimes the absence of an image is the central element around which everything is built. Respecting absence as a significant element is putting your trust in unconscious physical action and knowing how to welcome chance.

This contribution includes excerpts from Claire Atherton : ‘Living Matter’, Bomb Magazine, nr. 148, September 2019,


Claire Atherton

is a film editor. She was born in 1963 in San Francisco. Attracted by taoist philosophy and visual ideograms, she turned to studies of Chinese language and civilization, before enrolling in the cinema studies. In 1986, she started working with Chantal Akerman on Letters Home, which triggered a 30-year collaboration on Akerman’s fiction films, documentaries and installations. 

Claire Atherton works as editor with a wide range of directors, young film makers and film students. She is often invited to share her experience with students, in cinema or art schools. Atherton’s work has been honoured with the Vision Award Ticinomoda during the 72nd Locarno Film Festival in August 2019.