Order in Chaos – Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film
Author: Niels Pagh Andersen
The Danish film editor Niels Pagh Andersen (1958–) reflects in his new book, Order in Chaos – Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film, on his 40 working years that have passed.
When he was fifteen, he started loving film, doing everything to become an editor, then became successfull with fiction films, followed by a personal downfall. Like a classical film narrative – he raised himself again from the bottom surrounded by beer bottles – finding the magic again in documentaries. As he describes in his book, which is as much about film editing as about life itself, people are longing to understand the world and ourselves.
Pagh Andersen is today a master of editing. With 250 films behind him, he also became a professor, teaching at the Norwegian Film School – which (together with others) supported this book. Order in Chaos is also made as an e-book with video interviews of eight directors and extracts of the film he edited with them.
Although not academically schooled in editing himself, Pagh Andersen conveys a great lot of insights. Let me sum up some: A story has a who, what, where, when, and why. A film should be treefold, with first a presentation, then tension or conflict, ending up in a climax. The presentation should not over-tell or under-tell, resulting in being boring or confusing. The conflict should be of such a dilemma that the main character is forced to act. And the climax makes the main character wiser – and presumably us as viewers too, as we should identify with the protagonist. With the right dosage of telling, and tension making excitement and raising new questions, the conflict should be resolved, and the «viewers gain a moral that will hopefully be meaningful to them», as Pagh Andersen writes. Although a documentary doesn’t solve most conflicts, «the main experience should be that ‘things have fallen into place,’ and order has come from the chaos.»
And overall, the emotions, the emotional structure – as we who have heard or read Walter Murch (In a Blink of an Eye, 1995) already know. In Murch’s «rule of six», 51% is emotions, 23% about advancing the story, and rhythm counts for 10%. And as Pagh Andersen writes, «film is an emotional medium, it shouldn’t just be a logical or intellectual release.»
A film should first have a presentation section, then tension or conflict, ending up in a climax.
As Pagh Andersen comes from classic film dramaturgy, we can read a lot of Robert McKee’s well-known Story (1997) here. The archeplot with three acts involving a one-character-driven drama, ending in a climax. As in the documentary The Act of Killing (2012), aristotelian catharsis is in Order in Chaos as we can read about this film’s main character Anwar Congo. Congo follows this structure, ending in the «authentic now», when he breaks down showing how he killed the communists – with a steel wire.
1000 hours of clips
But as the world has changed, Pagh Andersen has also. And in Order in Chaos, two other films stand out for me, showing his openness for what we with
McKee could call miniplot or nonplot.
His collaboration with Ai Weiwei on Human Flow (2017) is outstanding. As he writes about editing this film about the 2016 increasing refugee problem, they had to make a film out of 1000 hours of different clips. Some are Weiwei’s own from his cellular phone, others from the internet, and what he calls Flow Material is by a professional camera on a tripod. But as described about this world-famous artist, Weiwei «wasn’t fond of cinema’s sentimentality and dramaturgical formulas» and «for him, content and message always comes before aesthetics.»
So what to do? Pagh Andersen, who had a problem with conceptual films, started working, also with 6 assisting editors (!), trying to avoid ending up with the stereotypes we see on refugees in mass media. Ye, what do you do with 600 interviews and conversations?
But as the world has changed, Pagh Andersen has also.
He also tried out a female voiceover to build a structure but failed.
But looking around in Weiwei’s «command centre» in the middle of Berlin – with walls «filled with maps, statistics and news clippings» – the idea came out to let texts and facts become the binding structure. Also, a warm and humble Weiwei became, although the artist resisted, a binding structure as the film «witness» in the background. It was built first with the heroic refugees escaping from war, keeping up their dignity and hope, followed by the conflict of closed borders and then they all ended up (hopeless) in refugee camps in Turkey.
The subtext – as Pagh Andersen always looks for this – was to avoid the typical we-and-them, as this dehumanizes the other or victimizes her, and keep us as superior looking down. The simple message became, «we are all people on this earth.»
Topic-driven and chaos
But most intriguing in Order in Chaos was for me the text about and video interview with the Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo on her documentary The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (2004). A film about Chechenia – seen from children in war.
As Pagh Andersen writes, it was the «only film I’ve edited that doesn’t have a linear structure.» Up through the 90ies he had great successes with narrative films, and as he wrote, «ninety percent of all films utilize linear structures.» Now he was confronted with an auteur, a cinematographer, who wanted to edit her own film. A strong woman, who, unlike the 1000 hours he had with Weiwei, gave him a ratio of only 6:1 of recorded material. As she is referred as shooting: «When I first press the button, I know what I want.»
In an isolated old farm with a cat and a sauna during a Finnish winter, they edited each on two computers, supplying and learning from each other. The edit of this non-linear film was constructed as a «symphony», «with themes, modulations of these themes, and secondary themes.» With three parts named Longing, Breathing, and Remembering, this is actually a film without a one-character-driven forward-moving narrative. More of a «triptych», as Honkasalo says in the interview.
And here, Pagh Andersen is close to what I am often asking for as theme- or topic-driven documentaries, the essay film. Though, the emotional and aesthetics must be there.
Existentially, or the subtext, surfaced as a shame that «hit» – as said by the director, but also felt by many of us who have seen the film.
On a more intellectual level, the content of the film there also surfaced an existential content of shame that «hit» us.
Named in New York Times as «the saddest film ever made», this film is about how some parts of the world treat innocent children. Yes, who can still be cynical after seeing the three girls in Melancholia leaving their sick mother?
As a film, what is told is as much between the images (or maybe between the lines in Weiwei’s film?) – often generated by the «authentic now». Because we, the viewers, are also «co-directors» when the edit make space for this – as the editor are making order in chaos (Chechenia this time).
Pagh Andersen ends this book with reflections on life itself. He admits that there should always be some chaos, something unexpected. I guess it keeps up our curisity.
And let me add about documentaries and authenticity what Honkasalo tells him about shooting documentary, at the very end of the interview: «You cannot order anything in film.»
The book will be released
November 21., at IDFA.