Scissor sisters

Given the maleness of the industry, it’s a surprise to realise just how many classic films have been crafted by female editors.

Part of our Female Gaze special coverage. 


from our August 2015 and September 2015 issues

Credit: Arthur Chiverton ( for Sight & Sound

Brace yourselves. I’ve got a story to tell. Or maybe it’s not a story. Maybe it’s just a list. A remarkable list.

It starts with Mad Max: Fury Road, which I loved. It reminded me of silent movies, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and the cyberpunk Tetsuo films. And the editing! Action films’ fight scenes are often a bore because they’re incoherent or chaotic. I’m not in them. Boy was I in Mad Max’s. Despite its 2,700 shots (an average shot length of just 2.6 seconds, faster cutting than in Eisenstein’s films), the film didn’t lose its direction of travel or geometry or point of view.

So, in the end credits, I looked for the name of its editor: Margaret Sixel. I looked her up. She cut Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Not exactly action fare. Maybe that’s why the cutting’s so great, I thought. She’s ignoring the grammar. The bad grammar.

Seeing Sixel’s name made me think of other great female editors. Thelma Schoonmaker, of course, who cut Raging Bull and Goodfellas – and The Wolf of Wall Street, which is an editing miracle. But then there’s Blanche Sewell, who did The Wizard of Oz, Grand Hotel and Queen Christina; and Dorothy Spencer, who gave Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine their honeyed flow; and Adrienne Fazan who gave lift to Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris; and Verna Fields who helped give Jaws its bite; and Margaret Booth, who added discipline to Mutiny on the Bounty and who lived to 104.

Add in Carol Littleton (E.T. and Body Heat), Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde, Reds, The Hustler), Barbara McLean (All About Eve), Marcia Lucas (Star Wars), Mary Sweeney (Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway), Sally Menke (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and Lisa Fruchtman (Apocalypse Now) and, through the lens of editing, the American movie canon starts to look very female. Not only that: it’s striking how many of the above – Mulholland Drive, Pulp Fiction, Reds, Apocalypse Now, Body Heat – are labyrinthine films, whose cutting causes the mystery.

At this point it’s tempting to ask why so many of the great films are edited by women, but before we dig into that, let’s hitch a ride a bit further and look at countries beyond America.

In France, the story’s just as striking. Nicole Lubtchansky edited the great films directed by Jacques Rivette: Celine and Julie Go Boating and La Belle Noiseuse. Françoise Bonnot edited more than 45 films, including Costa-Gavras’s Z and Missing, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows and Polanski’s The Tenant. Marguerite Renoir’s 60-plus films included La Grande Illusion and lots more directed by Jean Renoir. Claudine Bouché did Jules et Jim and films by François Ozon. Juliette Welfling edited The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, then The Hunger Games in the US, before returning for the recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner Dheepan. Mathilde Bonnefoy edited Run Lola Run and Citizenfour. And Anne-Sophie Bion did The Artist.

In Germany, Juliane Lorenz edited many of the great films of Fassbinder: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz and Querelle. Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus did all the great Werner Herzogs: Aguirre, Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo. Jane Seitz edited Christiane F. and The Name of the Rose. And Heidi Genée edited one of the great documentaries, Marlene.

Is it just me or is this exciting? I know that I’m writing little more than a list here, but what a list. Have you seen all these women’s names together before? I haven’t. Let’s keep going. Let’s jump to Africa. Tunisia’s great director Moufida Tlatli (who became the country’s culture minister) was a great editor (she cut Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces, which is a gem). As I write, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Mali-set Timbuktu is in the cinemas. It was edited by Nadia Ben Rachid, who also contributed the dreamy rhythms to the same director’s Waiting for Happiness.

In Australia, Jill Bilcott cut a number of Baz Luhrmann’s films, including Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, both of which are montage films par excellence. Veronika Jenet edited Jane Campion’s The Piano and much else. And Pip Karmel did Shine.

The UK’s Anne V. Coates did Lawrence of Arabia and The Elephant Man. Clare Douglas edited United 93 and Bloody Sunday. And Justine Wright did Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September, Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland.

Everywhere you look, some of the best editors are women. In the Soviet Union, Esfir Shub had a big influence on cinema editing. In the Netherlands, Helen van Dongen cut some of Joris Ivens’s films, as well as Flaherty’s Louisiana Story. In Belgium, Marie-Hélène Dozo edited the vivid Dardennes films: The Promise, Rosetta, The Son, etc.

In Mexico, Gloria Schoemann edited more than 220 films, over 40 years, including many of the masterpieces of the Mexican golden age: Macario, Maria Candelaria and The Pearl. In Italy, Gabriella Cristiani cut Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky.

And in India, that cine-continent about which Western movie lovers tend to know little, not only are the editors’ names unfamiliar, so are the films. Nonetheless, here are some of the women we should have heard of: Beena Paul, who’s edited many Malayalam films including Munnariyippu; Deepa Bhatia, whose most famous film is probably Dev; Namrata Rao, who edited Kahaani; and Renu Saluja, who edited Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda and many other films.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, of course. In Finland, Pirjo Honkasalo is a great editor, and I could go on. My point is this: the maleness of movies has been their weakness, but when you look at editing, films seem far less male. They come alive under its spotlight. Behind this list of 43 women, there are lives, of course, and talents, revelations and deferrals to men. “I always cut with ambivalence,” said Dede Allen who, in Bonnie and Clyde, imported some of the French ideas of editing to the US.

Credit: Arthur Chiverton ( for Sight & Sound

If film cutting in many national cinemas is substantially a girl game, this raises the inevitable question: since film in general has been quite male-dominated, why is editing less so?

To answer this is to risk gender stereotypes. For example, since editing is techy and systems-y, involves sitting at computers in dark rooms, and is pretty anti-social too, a clichéd image of a male comes to mind. But lots of the most techy people I know are women, and I’ve met many who love talking about the difference between Avid and Final Cut editing software – talk that makes me glaze over.

Look beyond the working conditions, and editing starts to look more ambiguously gendered. Technology and timelines become hyphenated with human-imaginative qualities.

Let’s list some of the skills a cutter needs. They’re absorbers, taker-inners. They internalise what’s in the rushes, and listen to the director. They need to be respectful and, at times, rebellious. They respect the script or treatment and shots and coverage, but they also think beyond these structures, imagining them reconfigured. Dede Allen referred to this as seeing “intended and unintended possibilities”. I like the word ‘possibilities’. Editing is hoping for the film, its extension. For example, Bernardo Bertolucci had The Conformist shot in flowing crane shots, but his (male) editor Kim Arcalli cut them into bits. A kind of emasculation, you could say – pardon the gender talk – but his editing freed the film up. It cracked open its ‘perfect’ crane shot surface to let its steam escape.

As well as being reverent-irreverent, an editor needs to look beneath the fuselage and see things in the film that the director and writers didn’t intend. They need to see the deep theme in the picture, and be moved by it and clear about it and, as it were, drag it from the film’s subconscious up into its conscious. The editor is the shrink. Or, sticking with the idea of depth analysis, of theme steerage, editing is quite like writing. Another way of thinking about this is to say that editors are directors’ translators. They turn what they have said in shots into what they want to say, in cuts. Translation is like riding two horses at once. You have to keep them running together.

Once the first cut is delivered, the editor must be patient with the chopping and changing that result from editorial notes. They shouldn’t get angry or be diva-esque. Given the theme of this article, I should say that I don’t use the word diva in a gendered sense. I know more boy divas than girls.

And diva is close to another useful word here, ‘alpha’. Editors are not usually alphas, because they sit in the edit suite with an alpha, the director. Two alphas in a room means blood on the walls. Given the theme of this article, I should say that alpha doesn’t necessary mean alpha-male. An alpha is someone who can’t keep their trap shut, and always has a plan. Alphas think as they speak, rather than beforehand.

What else about editors? They are often moles. They don’t love limelight. Mary Lampson, who edited films for Emile de Antonio and Barbara Kopple, said, “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.”

They have a sense of rhythm – sonic, but especially spatial – which those of us who aren’t editors can enjoy but not replicate. Editors have pride. Often they’re slow to anger (I was going to add “and rich in mercy”, but that’s going too far), but when cynicism or ignorance invades their camera obscura, they get mad. And there’s a more political dimension, too. There are tedious aspects to editing and, in the earliest days it was seen as a mechanical job, so was quite low paid.

Absorbent, good at listening, imaginative, flexible, calm, low paid. Do these words conjure a gender for you? Are you seeing a woman when you read them, or not? My honest answer is that I know more women who have many of those qualities than men. But my editor, Timo Langer, has all of these, and some of your favourite men probably do too. They are human traits rather than female traits, surely. Maybe the answer is that editing isn’t female or male. It’s both.

But most of all, it ain’t alpha.


In the October 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

The female gaze: 100 overlooked films directed by women

Over 20 pages we celebrate a selection of remarkable works by female filmmakers that have unjustly slipped from public view – including Year of the Woman – in the hope we can correct their place in film history and help them find a wider audience. Introduction by Isabel Stevens, with contributions from Jane Campion, Greta Gerwig, Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Agnès Varda, Tilda Swinton and more.


+ Dispatches: Assuming that they’re there

Yes, women get pushed to the margins of the film business – but there are great women filmmakers out there, and always have been, writes Mark Cousins.

  • Sight & Sound: the October 2015 issue

    Sight & Sound: the October 2015 issue

    The Female Gaze: 100 underrated films directed by women, with contributions from Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Isabelle Huppert, Tilda...

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    Women on Film – all our coverage

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