“Curiosity and Fear Are Strange Companions”: Editor Stella Heath Keir on Girl
Precocious 11-year-old Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) and her 24-year-old mother Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) have an intense (if somewhat co-dependent) bond in Girl, the feature debut from writer-director Adura Onashile. Living in a sprawling Glasgow apartment complex, Grace constantly fears that Ama is in danger when she leaves her home alone to work the night shift as a janitor. Perhaps this has to do with Grace’s own traumatic past—a facet of her life she will need to unpack and being to heal from if she wishes to foster a healthy relationship with her daughter, who is on the precipice of puberty and longs to step out of the nest.
Girl‘s editor Stella Heath Keir discusses being raised by filmmaker parents, creating the film’s necessary subtext and a relevant Maya Angelou quote.
See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Keir: I first worked with director Adura Onashile and producer duo, barry crerar, back in 2019 on their BAFTA Scotland-nominated short film Expensive Shit. Despite having never met face to face, and editing the film entirely via Zoom due to the pandemic, Adura and I connected quickly and built a genuine and honest creative relationship.
When I was sent the script, I was drawn to the gentle yet complex coming of age/love story between a mother and her child, about innocence lost. There was a visceral and lyrical language in the script that I immediately connected with. To me, the poetic expression of the complex themes found in Adura’s films are, first and foremost, deeply grounded in her characters. There is a love and reverence for the characters she writes and the stories they tell.
Despite Girl being Adura’s debut feature—and my first feature—our shared sensibilities, the creative shorthand we’d already built and the generosity of her trust in me as a collaborator led to me being hired as editor of Girl.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Keir: Girl is a film built out of nuanced performances. As a director, Adura digs into the in-between spaces, the voids and vacuums. She allows her characters to exist as whole people, fallible and contradictory. Grace is a complex character with difficult choices to face. She is a mother, but in so many ways still a child herself. While the audience might not always agree with her actions, we needed to make sure there was the space for her to be understood and empathized with. Ama, the greatest joy of Grace’s life, is also a painful reminder of her past. In Girl, we recognize that curiosity and fear are strange companions, opposites that are quite often drawn towards each other, sometimes within the same beat.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Keir: It was about creating subtext. It was about lingering on Grace’s subtle movements and facial expressions. It was about how long we’d stay with her, or where her eye-line was—was she looking off into the distance or intently looking in our direction?
The edit was often guided by a desire to work with intimacy, restraint and patience, and for the edits to be invisible. At other moments it was about editing against this lyrical rhythm, about being sharp, brutal, and intrusive with how we cut to create the most visceral feeling of Grace’s experience for the audience. We mainly did this by working with the placement of the sonic and visual flashbacks and by crafting unscripted parallel intercut sequences to highlight emotions such as her growing separation from Ama or how her trauma is always present just under the surface.
We also knew that sound design and score were going to be important elements in understanding Grace’s psychology, so we worked closely with William and Ré throughout the offline process. Their contributions during the edit were invaluable.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Keir: I was raised by filmmaker parents on a healthy diet of classic and art house cinema with Lynch, Fellini and Fassbinder as firm family favorites. My own journey into editing started later at art school while studying photography and experimenting with installation art. I discovered a love for curation and more importantly, found creative expression when sound and image were combined.
Self taught, I learnt by making mistakes… and friends with video artists. This was also when I discovered the works of artists such as Nan Goldin, Arthur Jafa, Shirin Neshat, Francesca Woodman, Ming Smith, Pipilotti Rist and many other greats.
After graduating I moved to Berlin and did everything I could to work with filmmakers. I was a runner, researcher and producer, but knew that what I loved was editing. Eventually I decided that I wanted a more formal education so attended the NFTS. At the end of the two years I left with not only an MA in Editing, but a group of lifelong friends and collaborators. Azaar, my graduate fiction project, directed by Myriam Raja, was nominated for a BAFTA.
I continued editing short films to build my experience, network and creative voice, nurturing within myself a distinctive point of view. Some creative highlights along the way were Good Thanks, You?, directed by Molly Manning Walker which premiered at Cannes in the Critics’ Week, Morning Song directed by Bijan Sheibani, and the BIFA-longlisted Run directed by Ruth Greenburgh. Girl is my first feature.
Directors and their respective films such as Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank), Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar), Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), all left huge impressions on me. I can still remember the feeling of watching all of these films for the first time—magic!
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Keir: Avid Media Composer—it worked best in terms of the overall workflow for all of our post-production team members.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Keir: Grace finally breaking down in the social workers office.
It was a balance of cutting dialogue but also giving her her time to speak and be heard. It was also about finding the right level of emotional restraint and raw expression in the performance. Should we see Grace cry at all? Should we stay with her for longer once she’s broken down? What exact words should Lisa say? Should we end with Grace looking down, away, or cut out of the scene on her inhale or exhale…?
We found that in this film it was often what was left unsaid that resonated most deeply. Because the characters reveal so little, we are slowly drawn into them. The performances are charged with tension. We spoke about editing as if we were on the intake of a breath, holding it as we hurtle towards a deeper understanding and empathy towards Grace’s experiences, which will eventually get caught in your throat.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Keir: Ama’s beacon of light in the distance, her ferris wheel, plus the fire she sees in the council block across from hers, which are both key images to the story, were built using VFX.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Keir: Watching the film with the final score, sound design and mix was very moving. The realization of the score, built out of women’s voices, brought such a raw emotional texture to the picture. The film is imbued with the weight of trauma, and the final music created space for me to watch the film with a renewed appreciation for the childlike, the fragile, the silence, the space and the joy we’d allowed our characters. It made me think of this quote by Maya Angelou: “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow.” The love between these two characters is complicated, painful and beautiful.