Helen Van Dongen - Writer

Editor. Nationality: Dutch. Born: Amsterdam, 5 January 1909. Family: Married Kenneth Durant, 1950. Career: 1928—assisted Joris Ivens on The Bridge , and later works; 1930—studied soundtrack recording and editing, Tobis Klangfilm Studios, and also studied at UFA, Berlin; 1934—assistant and observer at Joinville Studios, Paris, studied at the Academy of Cinematography, Moscow, under Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov, 1934–36, and observer in Hollywood studios, 1936; late 1930s—worked as producer on education films; abortive job as editor on film project of Nelson Rockefeller, the co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs, during World War II; another abortive project as deputy commissioner for the Netherlands East Indies (Ivens was to serve as Commissioner); 1950—retired upon marriage.

Films as Editor:


De brug ( The Bridge ) (Ivens) (asst)


Regen ( Rain ) (Ivens) (asst); Wy brouwen ( We Are Building ) (Ivens) (asst)


Philips-Radio ( Industrial Symphony ) (Ivens); Zuiderzee Dike (doc); Nieuwe polders (doc); Creosoot ( Creosote ) (Ivens) (asst)


Zuyderzee (Ivens)


Nieuwe Gronden ( New Earth ) (Ivens); Misère au Borinage ( Borinage ) (Ivens)


Borza ( The Struggle ) (von Wagenheim)


Spain in Flames (+ pr)


The Spanish Earth (Ivens)


You Can Draw (+ d, ph)


The 400 Million ( China's 400 Million ) (Ivens); Pete Roleum and His Cousins (Losey)


Power and the Land (Ivens)


The Land (Flaherty); Russians at War (compilation)


Netherlands America (+ d); Peoples of Indonesia (+ d)


News Review No. 2 (compilation)


Gift of Green (+ co-d—16 mm)


Louisiana Story (Flaherty) (+ co-pr)


Of Human Rights (+ d)


By VAN DONGEN: books—

Joris Ivens , Berlin, 1963.

The Adirondack Guide-Book and Related Essays , Blue Mountain Lake, New York, 1971.

By VAN DONGEN: articles—

"350,000 Feet of Film," in The Cinema 1951 , edited by Roger Manvell, London, 1951.

"Imaginative Documentary," in The Technique of Film Editing , by Karel Reisz, London, 1958.

"Notes on Louisiana Story ," "Robert Flaherty," and "Tonschnitt bei Louisiana Story ," in Robert Flaherty , edited by Wolfgang Klaue, Berlin, 1964.

"Robert J. Flaherty 1884–1951," in Film Quarterly (New York), Summer 1965.

Film Quarterly (New York), Winter 1976–77.

On VAN DONGEN: articles—

Films and Filming (London), December 1961.

Ivens, Joris, in The Camera and I , New York, 1969.

Skoop (Amsterdam), November 1978.

* * *

There is a famous story recounted by Time magazine's Richard Corliss in a 1980 essay on Robert Flaherty. Helen Van Dongen, working as the editor of the filmmaker's The Land , showed him a sequence she had cut together and he fervently disapproved. A few days later she screened the same sequence for him and he said "Now you've got it." Van Dongen proved ably up to the task of working with Flaherty, transmuting the director's seemingly random and chaotic footage into, as Corliss writes, "a brilliant 'as told to' autobiography. If [Flaherty's] spirit informed their project, then [Van Dongen's] will gave its final form."

In the truest spirit of the title, Van Dongen was an editor whose techniques, honed by early work with Joris Ivens, extended beyond mere physical assemblage and continuity supervision to thoughtful documentary theory and to complex and creative sound work. In Flaherty's Louisiana Story , in which she served as editor and as associate producer, she worked closely with composer Virgil Thompson in creating specific themes for characters and sequences, and manipulated the sound track by disassembling sounds and then reconfiguring them: a scene on a bridge at night may contain up to 20 separate sounds (some of which were not endemic to the location) or a human scream could be a fusing of a dozen voices. Her exhaustive analysis of the film can be found in The Technique of Film Editing and is a fascinating look not only at how sequences were structured and sound was used, but also the reasons why—both the pragmatic and the dramatic.

Though her two World War II compilation documentaries, Russians at War and News Review No. 2 were well received, having been compared favorably with the World at War series by Frank Capra, her two films with Flaherty have proven her most enduring works. Her extensive diaries of the production histories of The Land and Louisiana Story provide a telling memoir of working on location and in the editing room with the often opaque and stubborn Flaherty (he referred to her as his "Dutch mule"), while also revealing a uniquely productive and successful collaboration. Though certainly a tempestuous relationship, it was never overtly adversarial; in fact when Van Dongen had to trick Flaherty into providing the narration for The Land because no narrator could capture his intonations (she earlier had corralled Ernest Hemingway into reciting his own written words on Ivens's The Spanish Earth ), he was by all accounts incensed, but later conceded Van Dongen was right because it benefited the film. While their goals were the same, Van Dongen admitted her greatest challenge was in having to continually interpret and reinterpret Flaherty's admittedly elusive vision (which often led to gross continuity gaps and over- and undershooting) and then shape it into a cohesive and viewable motion picture. When she first began to work with Flaherty, she said she was "completely baffled by his method" and wrote to Ivens for help in understanding. Ivens's reply was equally cryptic: "Observe, look and listen and you'll find what he wants." Only when she was able to view the footage through Flaherty's realm of understanding, she said, and then decipher Flaherty's reaction while watching footage could she gauge the direction—and ultimately, the success—of the film. She wrote, "Had I myself gone to direct Flaherty's story, it would have looked quite different. But working with already filmed material, filmed under the influence of Flaherty . . . essentially my editing would have resulted in approximately the same story and form. This would have been inevitable because, to use the random material to full value, the editor has to discover not only the inherent qualities of each shot but also must know the how's and why's, the director's reasoning behind each shot, or must know that no one else but Flaherty would have shot such a scene." Her ability to read the director in this way no doubt made her the best editor for Flaherty, but more importantly, made Flaherty's films better.

Though both The Land and Louisiana Story are prime examples of Flaherty's filmmaking sensibility, much of the beauty and emotional gravity of the films is owed to Van Dongen's delicately focused sound and film editing. They move beyond what film history regards as documentary (and perhaps to a degree beyond what fiction can do as well), and into something ultimately more lyrical. In an interview with Ben Achtenberg, Van Dongen herself resisted the label of documentary: "To me Flaherty is not a documentarian; he makes it all up. He does use the documentary style and background but, except for The Land , they are all, to a degree, stories. . . . They are part of our history of filmmaking, but I do hesitate to call them documentaries. They are Flaherty-films, and worthwhile enjoying."

—Jon Lupo

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