The film director still stands before the media and viewers as an undeniable authority of artistic aspects of cinema. This is the result of a hundred years of complicated film history. Especially in the Eastern Bloc, there was a strong will on the part of the state to push the director out of prominence and replace him with the screenwriter whose work is easier to control. This pressure proved to be unsuccessful as the identity of director as the source of vision, confirmed by the auteur theory in the 60s, has remained almost unweakened.
But there are some problems with this approach. It is best seen in the reality of documentary cinema where the position of the editor is today, in the time of digital cameras and hundreds of hours of raw footage, maybe more important than ever before. Due to current standards, the shape of a movie is born in the editing room and the dynamic between the director and editor is the driving force in the process of documentary filmmaking.
It is no surprise editors are well aware of this and expect the director to fully accept their integrity. “I avoid a project when I’m not sure I will be fully heard as a partner of the author,” says Jana Vlčková, a leading Czech editor, winner of the national Czech Lion Award for the fiction film Dirt (2017), but also an editor of successful documentaries, such as When the War Comes (2018).
“I believe there must be a symbiotic relationship between these two professions,” says Šimon Hájek, whose fiction film Domestique (2018) and documentary King Skate (2018) are both screened at the Karlovy Vary film festival.
“In fact I love the discussions we have while making movies. In the end, the distinction between ‘his’ ideas and ‘mine’ dissolves," explains Jakub Vansa, editor of the documentary The Nagano Tapes (2018) made for the International Olympic Channel with director Ondřej Hudeček. The movie has been received as one of the best documentaries made in recent years, mostly for its great editing.
“One of the biggest artistic clashes we had was over a song I wanted to use. I was happy with what I did but Ondřej had his doubts. In the end, I kept bothering him so much he allowed me to do it my way. But I don’t believe he really thought it was the best option,” says Vansa. It goes to show that an editor can be in a position to win some of the little battles artists fight during filmmaking.
“Sometimes I need to work at night to be fully concentrated. I ask the director to leave the work completely to me, so I can prepare my best shot and present it when it’s done. I risk that hours of my work will be lost but it happens rarely. One of ‘my’ directors even counts on it and leaves the work to me, expecting the job to be finished when he comes,” Vansa continues. It seems that if an editor chooses their director wisely, they can achieve a good deal of independence.
It is apparent that most great editors of Czech documentaries do not specialize only in this area of filmmaking. “Even though most of my current work is documentary cinema, I don’t consider myself a ‘documentary editor’,” says Vlčková. “And I doubt many of my colleagues would. We see ourselves simply as ‘editors’.”
“The intensity of my involvement is the same in both cases,” Vlčková insists. “The differences are minor – the use of psychological detail and personal poetry in fiction, a greater freedom of structure in documentary films,” explains Vlčková. “But these are no iron rules, of course.”
Her colleagues have a similar view but point out more profound differences between the two forms. “The biggest difference is that a fiction film has its first edit done before the shooting even begins - it's the script. That’s not the case with documentaries where you must wade the swamp of raw material before you can really start to talk about structure,” says Hájek. “That makes the whole process much more exhausting.”
At some level, Vlčková agrees: “The only really big difference I see is the necessity to watch hundreds of hours of material for a documentary - my record is 400. That's why it takes longer to edit. Unfortunately, the job is underpaid and the editor of a documentary film takes only one third or one half of the fee for fiction.”
“As a relatively successful editor with plenty of work,” claims Vlčková, “I don't feel I can speak about the general situation of Czech editors. But I do believe there is enough to do for all of us – at least thanks to Czech Television. The other thing is that working conditions as far as the fee and schedule haven't changed for at least 15 years.”
This means that even though the position of an editor as a full creative authority is apparent, his working conditions are far from perfect. “It seems to me that editors do have a good position on the market if we speak about the amount of work. But the problem is money. I think the financial situation of editors hasn't changed since the 1990s,” claims Hájek. “But editors aren't the only film profession facing this issue.”
Vansa with his experience from abroad agrees: "I don't want to sound materialistic but the biggest difference I found working for Olympic Channel is money. Not only speaking about the fee alone but the budget as well – there was more time to edit the movie so we could be sure we did our best. Yes, we can edit for six months in the Czech Republic as well but then we must fund ourselves – we must use our personal money. There are exceptions but when we work, for example, for television we must do great compromises. We can't even think about doing our best, we must do only as well as possible. And it is terrible to work with that weighing you down.
To conclude: Czech documentaries are the result of the director-editor dynamic. The director is still the main authority but due to personal respect the editor becomes just as crucial for the result. Some of the best documentary editors do not specialize only in documentaries and they are usually just as celebrated for their work on fiction films. As usual, the problematic aspects are still funding and time.