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In the course of making Shoah, an epic nine-and-a-half-hour documentary on the Holocaust, French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann shot over 350 hours of interviews with witnesses, survivors, and perpetrators, alongside footage of key locations in the present day. Released in 1985, Shoah is credited with helping to awaken the public to the horrors of the Holocaust. But prior to that, Israeli editor Ziva Postec spent nearly six years painstakingly poring over those 350 hours to assemble the vital document we have today, only for her role in the production to be downplayed by Lanzmann and subsequent supporting material.
Ziva Postec. The Editor Behind the Film Shoah, from Canadian filmmaker Catherine Hébert, explores what would drive someone to devote so many years of their life to such a grueling undertaking, and at what cost. It’s also a warm portrait of a fascinating life beyond her definitive cinematic achievement, one filled with leaps of faith, tragedy, obsession, and working relationships with some of the great artists of the time, including Alain Resnais and Orson Welles. I had a chat with Hébert after the film’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Hyperallergic: How did this project get started?
Catherine Hébert: I did a film, a crazy film, Notes on the Road Less Taken [Carnets d’un grand detour]. It’s a road movie where I walked for eight months, from the Strait of Gibraltar to Bamako in Mali. I was following a man who was carrying books on a donkey. He was a public reader, making readings along the way.
I was showing it at a theater in Montreal. During the Q&A after the film, I talked about my relationship to my editor, Annie Jean. And I remember saying that because it’s a road movie and I have lots of footage, we really made the film in the editing room. I have a very good relationship with her and we’ve made lots of films together. It’s not common that directors value the work of editors, because it’s work that’s done in the shadows, in a closed room, and we don’t really know what’s going on in this room.
At the theater, there was a PhD student who was impressed by the fact that I talked about my editor. He was doing his PhD thesis on Shoah. A whole chapter was about the editing and Ziva Postec. He and I went for a coffee. When he told me about Postec, and how she was still alive, I was immediately interested in making something, even though Shoah is such an important film that we have a tendency to think that everything has been said about it.
I wrote an email to Ziva saying I would like to meet her. She’s quite a character, so she said, “Before you come and meet me, I would like to see your previous films.” So I sent DVDs, and I received another email a couple of weeks later saying, “Okay, now you can come.”
H: You address Postec’s other work, but was Shoah always intended to be the central hook of the documentary?
CH: The simple answer is that I was interested in Ziva because she was the editor of Shoah. But I don’t think I could have made a film if her life had not been so interesting. The main challenge was that I did not want it to be a simple portrait of Ziva, but neither did I want it to be a making of Shoah, which could have been easy, since I had access to all the footage.
The question became “Why would someone edit a film on such a difficult subject for six years?” I mean, who would do that? You have to understand why she became so obsessed with it. And that’s why it worked out with Claude Lanzmann. He was obsessed and she was obsessed.
H: When a director-editor partnership does have some degree of fame, it tends to be with fiction filmmaking partnerships (e.g. Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke). Do you have any ideas as to why the role of editors seems somewhat downplayed when it comes to documentaries?
CH: Most editors you’ll talk to will tell you that editing a fiction film is, of course, creation. But it’s nothing compared to the work you do in documentary, where you’re literally rewriting the whole film. You wrote a script and then you shot something different from the script, because it’s not actors, it’s human beings and real life. And then you bring this footage to the editing room and have to rethink. From that footage, you can tell many stories. With your editor, you discuss what story you’re going to tell.
So why is that creative work downplayed? Well, firstly, most directors have egos, and they sometimes forget that the film may be one person’s vision, but it’s also the result of the work of a whole team. Editing is also not that glamorous. The result is visible, but the process isn’t, because the process is discussion with the director. It’s put in the hands of the editor, and then manipulating the thing is maybe 1% of the work, because editing is all about thinking and making links, creating and nourishing the story. It’s a field of work that I think is misunderstood. If you say you’re a cameraman, everybody knows what you’re doing. If you say you’re an editor, for some people — and even for some directors — it’s not so obvious what it’s like.
H: Do you see any irony in Lanzmann reconstructing a lost history with Shoah, but then going on to minimize Postec’s role in its legacy?
CH: I do. I think it’s very ironic that he tried to erase Ziva — and not only Ziva, but lots of his collaborators — from the history of the film.
There is an interesting story… Lanzmann was the lover of Simone de Beauvoir [from 1952 to 1959]. When the film came out, de Beauvoir wrote an editorial that appeared on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde. She mentions the editing I think three times, and at some point she refers to “the magnificent editing of Claude Lanzmann.” This editorial was meant to become the prologue of the book of Shoah. And then Ziva got really mad and said, “This isn’t the editing of Claude Lanzmann.” Instead of putting in Ziva’s name, they took out the word “editing” and replaced it with “construction” — “The magnificent construction of Claude Lanzmann.” For a reason I can’t define, he wanted to be seen as the sole author of the film. And of course, he is the author, but that’s not the point.
H: All authors have editors.
CH: Yeah. So yes, it’s ironic. My film is about memory, but also a lot about creation. I hope it puts in light not only the work of Ziva, but the work of editors in general.
Ziva Postec. The Editor Behind the Film Shoah is currently playing at various film festivals.