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The artistry behind the screen

Women’s contribution and success in the field of film editing is often ignored.

india Updated: May 27, 2012 20:28 IST

That the Cannes Film Festival chose not to include any work by female directors in its competition this year created a mini-scandal. But it obscured a couple of other points about the state of women in film. For instance, only two of the 22 features in question were shot by female cinematographers. On the other hand, a full third of the movies were cut by female editors.

Mostly, this reflects what has always been true. ‘The invisible art’ of film editing — assembling sometimes chaotic heaps of footage into a coherent, narrative whole — has been practised by women as long as there has been a cutting-room floor.

Early on, women were hired to edit because it was considered menial labour, said Kim Roberts, an Emmy-winning editor who has worked on documentaries (Food Inc, Waiting for Superman). The editor Kate Amend (The Long Way Home) said she once heard Dorothy Arzner, the pioneering female filmmaker, speak. “She talked about cutting the bullfight scene in Blood and Sand,” Amend said. “She did it with a magnifying glass, holding the film up to the light.”

Long before Final Cut Pro and Steenbeck editing table, the work was primitive and unappreciated. That helps explain how women got in the door. But it doesn’t explain their success, relative though it may be.

The editing room is where women have thrived, even if it has meant splicing, dicing and realising the visions of male directors. In a 40-year career, the English editor Anne V Coates has been nominated for the Academy Award five times, and won for Lawrence of Arabia. Carol Littleton has cut the likes of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Big Chill, as well as Darling Companion.

Thelma Schoonmaker, a seven-time Oscar nominee, is synonymous with the work of Martin Scorsese (including Raging Bull and Goodfellas). And over a more than 50-year career, Dede Allen, who died in 2010, edited Bonnie and Clyde, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and The Missouri Breaks, all ‘boy movies’. Asked why so many women go into editing, Mary Jo Markey put it plainly: “A lot of women go into editing because women go into editing.”

People come out of film school wanting to be directors, she said, and the odds of that are long. “It makes sense to me,” she added, “that women would see what a viable option editing is, and it’s one that women are succeeding in.”

There are other considerations, too. “There’s a lot of joking among editors about our willingness to be alone in a room with a computer, not seeing the sunlight,” said Roberts, who is married with children. “But there’s something in my personality that wanted something more secure, where I didn’t have to hustle and I could have a family and have dinner with them every night.”

Mary Lampson left editing to have children, then returned to it. “Many good editors are sort of introverted, shy people, observers of life. They’re very funny. They’re ironic. And all those traits are what you need to be a good editor. I don’t think women have a monopoly on those traits. But they tend to be more like that than men.”

Whether there’s a gender-based gift for editing is something female editors are reluctant to address.“I’d like to think my being female contributes to my sensitivities and strengths in storytelling, but it feels ridiculous to say that,” said Alyse Ardell Spiegel, one of the younger women in the documentary editing field.

Could there be a biological bias? Citing the work of the researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, Michael Mills, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola-Marymount University, said that at first blush, editing would seem to be a male-oriented occupation. But, “to be a good film editor”, he said, “you need to select the best takes, and women are better at reading and interpreting facial expressions than men. High levels of both systematising and empathising are characteristic of the best film editors.”

Dana Glauberman, who edited Up in the Air for Jason Reitman, said, “It’s easy to say we, as women, are a stronger talent at it, simply because people think we are more nurturing than men are.” Obviously, there are many talented male editors, she said, “some of whom I’ve learned a great deal from”.

The New York Times