Ziva Postec Article
On November 7, 2019, the CCE and the Alliance Française of Toronto hosted a screening of the film “Ziva Postec: The Editor Behind the Film Shoah”, followed by a Q&A with director Catherine Hébert and editor Annie Jean, CCE.
The following is extracted from the bilingual Q&A session, hosted by filmmaker Paul Ruban.
Paul: Catherine, documentarians are rarely short on potential subjects. What made you want to commit to exploring the life of Ziva Postec?
Catherine: I was in a Q&A session in Montreal after my last film, which was a road movie in Africa, and I was talking about my great relationship with my editor Annie Jean, with whom I’ve made many films. And in the room was historian Rémy Besson, who you see in the film, and he was interested in the fact that I was talking about my relationship with my editor. He was working on his PhD on the historic film “Shoah” and there was a whole chapter of his thesis that was dedicated to Ziva Postec. So Rémy came to see me afterwards, and we talked about Ziva Postec. I thought that everything that could have been done around the film “Shoah” had been done, but I was surprised to learn that no one had produced anything about Ziva. I learned that she had dedicated 6 years of her life to the film (an amazing feat, given that most feature documentary edits last about 6 months or so), and that she was still alive. So I became really interested in her as a creative force, and then as I learned more about her life, I began to feel that her story would lend itself well to being told on film.
When I first contacted Ziva to ask for a meeting (I was in Canada, and she lives in Tel Aviv), she said “Well, before you come to see me, I’d like to see some of your other films”. So like a good little girl, I went to the post office, put my DVDs in an envelope, and mailed them to Ziva. A few weeks later, I got a response that said “OK, now you can come to Tel Aviv.” This was in 2011. It then became a long process to make the film.
Paul: Annie Jean, hats off to your work on this film. So much finesse and so many poetic moments. It must be a little strange, and daunting, to edit a film about an editor.
Annie: Yes! [laughs]. It was a big challenge for me, because I felt like I was being doubly observed by members of my profession. It’s rare for an editor to have the chance to cut a film about another editor, about the craft of editing. So I didn’t want to screw it up.
I have so much respect for the editing profession, which is funny to say because it’s my job, but it’s true. So I didn’t want to make the profession seem boring or trivial. It’s in the film, and I’ve often said to Catherine, that the films we edit change us. Their impact lingers beyond the time that we spend working on them. They are life experiences, experiences of reflection, and of friendships and human connections. You’re never the same before cutting a film as you are afterwards. We work to change the film as we edit it, to shape it, but the film also shapes us. That’s what interests me about this work. So for Ziva, and for me, working in film was this type of experience.
Paul: Catherine, at a roundtable last year, you talked about hitting a “wall” in the editing process, not unlike the one that Ziva encountered in the editing of “Shoah”--namely, solving the problem of editing a film based solely on interviews. Tell us about that.
Catherine: From the beginning, it was clear that the spine of the film would be Ziva’s story. So we knew that there would be a first block of shooting where I would go to Tel Aviv, interview Ziva, and then do a preliminary cut with Annie in Montreal. After that, we would continue shooting the other aspects of the film. I think it was a good idea, in theory, but here comes the wall: the problem was that Ziva is someone who speaks prolifically, and for a long time, and tells many stories within stories, so I came back with 25 hours of interviews of a woman retelling her life story. The challenge was, I knew I was going to go shoot in Paris, in places where she spent parts of her life, but how does one make a film where the images that we would use to accompany her story would not be direct illustrations of her life, but rather would evoke those moments? The frustrating thing about that style of filmmaking is that sometimes we would choose images for certain moments, and they didn’t work, and we didn’t know why...and other times things do work, and we still couldn’t say why.
The film was shot in several stages, because of Ziva’s age, family commitments, and so on. So it took 5 years, overall, to make. And throughout this time I was always ruminating on how to take the different elements of Ziva’s story and put them into a visual medium. And I’ll tell you a secret: there are moments in this film where the footage isn’t what it appears to be--the shimmering sea of Israel is actually from Mexico; the plane taking off isn’t in Paris, it’s on the tarmac in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Annie: For me, the wall was very long. It took us a while to figure out how to construct the story. When Ziva tells it, it’s very chronological, and the difficulty was that in the linear telling of the story, it didn’t reveal the emotional beats that Catherine was looking for.
Paul: What were you looking for?
Catherine: I wasn’t sure, but there were two things that Annie would say to me regularly. First of all, it’s a multilayered film, it’s neither a straight biography about Ziva, nor is it a “making of” for the film “Shoah”. So Annie would quite rightly ask me: what’s your film really about? What are you trying to say? And the second thing she would say to me was that this isn’t simply Ziva’s story, it’s my perspective on and m y telling of Ziva’s story.
Annie: The film itself is very much about memory, and in making the film we realized that we couldn’t go chronologically; we had to structure it more in the way that memory works. When Ziva was telling her story, she was always jumping backwards into the past, to help make sense of things. For example, when she first started working on “Shoah”, she had profound reasons for doing it, but she didn’t necessarily realize what those reasons were until much later, when she finished the film. For us, we wanted to structure our film in a way that would allow those revelations to resonate and make sense bit by bit. So we really had to think about it in a different way.
There was something else that we realized, actually quite late in the process: as you may have noticed in the final film, many of the chapters of Ziva’s life are retold in reverse, that is, we start with the end, and then we rewind. For example, when we talk about her husband, the first thing we talk about is his death. And then we go back and talk about how they met, their relationship, and their life together. And once we finally realized that this was a storytelling method that worked for us, that’s when we finally found the film.
Paul: Your film offers a rare glimpse of some of the rushes that landed on Ziva Postec’s editing floor and didn’t make the final cut of “Shoah”--some 350 hours of raw material. It boggles the mind. How did you go about deciding which parts of this unedited material you wanted to include in your film?
Catherine: Claude Lanzmann shot between 300-350 hours of footage for “Shoah”, and whatever wasn’t used in the final film, which itself is 9.5 hours, was purchased by the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which now has the rights to that footage. So in our film, we weren’t allowed to use any footage that actually appeared in “Shoah”, but we could use anything that didn’t make the final cut.
Annie: For me, it seemed impossible at first, to cut a movie about an editor, who had edited this monumental film, without actually being able to show the result of her work--that is, clips from the film “Shoah” itself. By the end it turned out to be a very interesting and inspiring constraint, but at the beginning I had no idea how it would work.
Catherine: To answer your initial question, I didn’t have a real methodology for going through those rushes. I didn’t watch all 350 hours, but I watched a lot, and I read all of the transcripts of the interviews. I chose certain clips because they were very strong, but also because they resonated with Ziva’s own story. And I chose others because I wanted to give a wider view of what the film “Shoah” actually consisted of. For example, we included a section where Claude Lanzmann goes with a hidden camera to interview a former Nazi on his doorstep, this was suggested by our historian Rémy Besson, so that viewers would understand that in the film “Shoah”, they didn’t just interview survivors. And I should say too that there were moments of unexpected magic that occurred between me and Annie as we were working on the film. At the moment when I was in the museum in Washington, in the process of filming the exploration of the rushes, and looking at original footage of Auschwitz that had been rarely seen because it had never been digitized, Annie was in Montreal, cutting the interview with survivor Filip Müller, who finished his story by saying that he entered Block 13--and then I came back to Montreal with the footage and said “Annie, you won’t believe it, but I have footage here of Block 13.”
Annie: I think that surprisingly it happens a lot in editing, these magical moments. There is often magic in the editing suite.
[open to questions from audience]
Audience Question: How much time did the editing process take overall?
Catherine: We made sure that we planned a number of pauses in the process, so that we could step back and look at the film, I think in total we spent 5 or 6 months editing.
Audience Question: In the scene with the family dinner, is Ziva’s daughter in that scene? And was there any reflection about involving her more in the story? Ziva’s strained relationship with her daughter clearly has had a big impact on her.
Catherine: Yes, the lovely brunette you see at the end of the film is Ziva’s daughter Sarah. We didn’t want to state it obviously but yes, it’s her. I was in contact with her to ask her if she was interested in participating in the film and telling her point of view. But she replied very politely that even today, her relationship with her mother is very fragile, so for that reason she declined to participate.
Audience Question: I found the function of the image of the train in the film, and it mirroring the editing process, to be very powerful. I was just wondering if you could speak a little bit to that creative choice.
Catherine: The train that we see throughout the film is the regional train that goes between Paris and St. Cloud, which is where Ziva’s editing suite was located. I imagined that throughout the editing process, Ziva was likely haunted by the film she was cutting, and that she would be thinking about it on her way there and back every day. And I knew that filming a train would also resonate with the deportation trains of the holocaust. But my first intent was not to illustrate those trains, but the trains of Ziva’s everyday life.
Annie: In the course of editing, the image of that train also became a metaphor for the train of memory, moving back and forth, and also the train of all the images that we work with, as editors, on repeat, back-and-forth as we are editing a film. So it had many meanings.
Paul: It reminds me of an intro sequence where you splice a reel of film between two shots of a train. So there is an echo between the movement of the reel in film editing, and the wheels of the train itself.
Audience Question: I wanted to ask about the freedom that Ziva had when she was editing “Shoah”. In the documentary it gives the impression that Lanzmann did the interviews, but then that it’s Ziva who chose all the moments and basically put together the film. As an editor, how much power did she have to choose what went into “Shoah”?
Catherine: I should say first of all that it’s very common that during the editing process, the editor will ask the director to go out and film more materials. This happens a lot, and it happened with Ziva, it happens with us too. And the other thing is that “Shoah” is a really exceptional film: the shoot happened over the course of 10 years, the editing over 6. So there would have been times when Ziva was in the cutting room, and Claude Lanzmann was out filming. So during those times there were creative decisions that would have needed to be made by Ziva, because Lanzmann couldn’t always be in the cutting room.
Annie: It’s always difficult to know what happens in an editing suite--often what happens there, stays there. It’s hard to tell where the ideas come from--they come from discussions, from problems you encounter, so it’s hard to know. But I’m sure that in “Shoah”, Ziva had a lot of input into the musicality of the film --
Catherine: --even though there’s no music in the film “Shoah”--
Annie: --yes, no actual music. But it’s the nature of her work to have contributed to the style this way. But of course she couldn’t have done it if Lanzmann hadn’t filmed all these arresting images. So it’s a back-and-forth process, and a complementary process as well.
Paul: Thanks to everyone for coming tonight. Thanks so much to Catherine and Annie for coming in from Montreal.
Catherine: Thank you. And I just want to leave you with the thought that editors are such important creative forces in filmmaking. I probably have a bigger respect than even Annie does for editors, and I really hope that this film succeeded not only in telling Ziva’s story, but also demystifying the work of editors in general. So thank you Annie! And thank you Paul.