Claire Atherton (photo by Sabine Cattaneo)

Claire Atherton has been traveling, presenting retrospectives of her collaborations with the great French filmmaker Chantal Akerman. In Montreal, she has come to present a program of Akerman’s films at the Cinema Moderne: From the East (1993), South (1999), Down There (2006), and No Home Movie (2015). It’s a series (which often also includes 2002’s From the Other Side) which explores the nature of movement and land by examining different geographical spaces. 

Two floors above the theater, in the post-production house Post-Moderne, Atherton settles herself in an editing room overlooking the bustling St. Laurent Boulevard. It’s quiet. She admires the space and the natural light. We move around furniture, and she explains the importance of space while editing. For Atherton, editing is more than just a job; it is a philosophy. “I have this political engagement as an editor,” she says. “It’s a way of living, not knowing where you’re going.”

Atherton began her career in film at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute in France. The organization, founded by Delphine Seyrig, Carole Roussopoulos, and Ioana Wieder, was devoted to the preservation of movies made by women, and offered technical workshops as well. She joined as an 18-year-old, and enjoyed learning how to work with different kinds of people, and quickly found a way to make herself useful. “The women [working there] were very smart [and had] many desires, but not very organized,” she explains. 

Claire Atherton and Chantal Akerman in 2014 (courtesy Artémis Productions)

Atherton recalls how, as a child, instead of going outside to play with her sisters or cousins, she enjoyed sorting magazines. “Organization helped me feel free.” This quality became a valuable asset in editing. “All the bins need to be structured, and all the windows have to open in the same place.” The ambiance of the editing room is also vital. “It’s part of the work too. In a place where there’s no light, you can’t tell distance. If the space is too humid, or tight, or if you don’t have good sound …” As an editor, Atherton stresses the need for discovery. The conditions must be right to allow that to happen. Before she first sits down with a filmmaker to look at any footage, she stresses the importance of being well-rested and calm. She makes sure she’s in good physical shape and has a clear mind. “It’s like jumping into a new world with someone,” she says. “You have to ready to get lost and not panic.” If the conditions aren’t right, there’s a tendency to rush toward reassurance. If you try to find a structure or meaning too early in the process, the film can’t breathe, “It can’t live.”

“Chantal used to say she wanted people to experience time,” Atherton says. In films focused on entertaining, time becomes filled rather than experienced. The unfolding movements of Akerman’s work, however, leaves room for the audience to both feel and think about the duration of the events. Akerman’s tendency to treat all her subjects the same, without judgment, similarly contributes to that sense of viewer empowerment. Take South, Akerman’s exploration of the American South, which contrasts explorations of the landscape with interviews. Akerman wanted to capture the silence of the environment, which is full of history. But in that silence is horror, rather than calm. Her interviews with residents explore both the historical and ongoing racist violence in the region. The extended travelogues give the viewer time to consider their words. The land becomes engraved with their different experiences. 

From South (1999) (courtesy Icarus Films)

Atherton explains, though, that the way the film is shot and edited doesn’t allow for easy judgement. The camera is placed at eye level with a sheriff who denies that there’s any racial tension in his county. The film doesn’t need to explicitly say, “This is bad.” He is a human being rather than a symbol. “Chantal’s cinema is political because it makes us move and think. I think that’s the most political attitude,” Atherton says. The use of montage similarly does not allow for easy symbolic reading, as the passage of time is emphasized, rather than juxtaposition. “My editing is also political, and it doesn’t create a pre-thought product,” she says. By “pre-thought product,” she means a film that is inscribed with a preconceived message or idea. In a world where productivity is prized above almost all else, our humanity becomes lost. “I feel as an editor, I’m resisting that.” She talks about teaching, and the language involved, describing how young editors talk about “testing” techniques and cuts as if they are machines. Cutting should be about feeling, not machinery. 

This approach is one reason for the continued resonance of Akerman’s documentaries. Atherton describes them as classical in the sense that they exist “beyond their subjects.” They might describe a particular moment in time or a specific subject, but the films also transcend them. “Sometimes, you have to go very far to talk about something very close to you,” she says. This sense of a journey with an unknown destination is fundamental to both the structure and the process of their collaborations.

Atherton has been working to preserve Akerman’s documentaries, and helped to bring them to the public. She’s creating a personal archive as well as a kind of remembrance. “You know, the world is not going very well. Everywhere you look, people are telling you how to live better,” she says. In troubled times, Chantal’s films give people room to think and feel. “But I think if the world were going well, you would still need the films. Chantal’s films are still alive, and will continue to be alive forever.” 

From From the East (1993) (courtesy Icarus Films)

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.