“We Would Light a Candle and Some Impepho at the Start of the Work Day”: Editor Hankyeol Lee on Milisuthando
Milisuthando, the five-part personal essay film from first-time director Milisuthando Bongela, utilizes a trove of unseen archival images of South Africa during apartheid, particularly the all-Black Transkei community that Bongela grew up in. As such, editor Hankyeol Lee had a lot of material to sift through while remaining attentive to the intimate and oft-sensitive details of Bongela’s—and an entire nation’s—traumatic reckoning.
Lee tells Filmmaker about how they went about editing the film, including a ritual she and the director would practice in the cutting room.
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?
Lee: I first came onto the project as an editor. Milisuthando Bongela, the director, was looking for someone to edit a trailer for the film (for pitching and fundraising purposes). I remember meeting her in the middle of the night at her then office (she was working full-time as a journalist for a paper), and doggedly working until the following morning. Getting up in the middle only to have an impromptu dance to Grace Jones to wake us up.
We really connected instantaneously. We didn’t know exactly where we were going, but there was a blind confidence and trust in each other that we knew we would arrive where we needed to arrive. We had to be serious, but also very playful and open to experiment and explore. So much of the film’s voice and style needed to be found, not created. This collaborative aspect of our relationship became an essential part of the editing process.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Lee: It’s hard to describe the process of making this film — half of it really lives in a very esoteric place. We knew that the film knew what it wanted to be. It felt like a child, teasing and challenging us to find its form and its voice — and that process of finding required a quieter, more inquisitive, listening spirit… The process required particular rituals to align ourselves to each other, and also to the intentions of the film, to become sensitized to the moments when the film revealed itself to us.
This calibration process was a task of intimacy — I felt a need to draw very close to Milisuthando herself, to get as close to her thinking process as possible, and to dig deeper in every regard. On every point, every intention, every piece of footage, we had long, deep conversations on their significance. This question of intimacy was integral to the cut itself — I felt a need to get the audiences as intimate as possible to Milisuthando herself. To the character, to her voice, to the world that she occupies.
Even in our intentions to speak directly to racism, it was important to retain intimacy. Since the conversation around race is often a distancing one — one that brings up defenses and offenses, rather than allow for vulnerability and intimacy.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Lee: One of our earliest mistakes was in our own eagerness. We had to learn to give time and space for screenings and feedback sessions. Because this documentary called for a deeply collaborative approach to editing, Milisuthando and I would be working side by side for weeks at a time, which would affect our ability to actually see the cut.
Because we were dealing with very sensitive matters, it was integral to ground ourselves constantly to the film’s intentions. Our process was sacred. We would light a candle and some impepho at the start of the work day. It really gave us a safe space to explore and work, while rummaging in the deepest, darkest parts of our collective and individual histories. I don’t know how much we could have achieved without that safety to be vulnerable — with each other, but also allow for vulnerability to exist within the film.
In terms of editing techniques, I found myself needing to map out the arc of the scene, or act, over and over again. I would draw elaborate timelines and mindmaps over and over again as I worked through each section. For the more intensive associative editing, such as the historical montage sequences, I had to slowly build each conceptual layer – start with a single motif, and then start to complexify by building another layer on top of that.
At the beginning of our second edit process, Milisuthando created a super-structure of the film by breaking the story into five parts — what we would call “five films”. We worked on each ‘film’ separately, and after each definitive cut, we would print transcripts with screenshots of each shot which would allow us to cut them up, and create the next literal paper edit.
From the paper edit, I would walk away and build my own edit script, to make the story make sense to myself while doing my best to stay loyal and honor the intentions and sensibilities of the director and of the film.
All of this took many months — even years — to formulate. We loved looking at other documentaries or films, and discussing them, but we couldn’t find any straight industry examples of what we wanted to achieve. We really had to find a way to deep-dive, explore, and create a path and a new methodology together.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Lee: Although I am an editor, I think my greatest strength in editing is that I am multidisciplinary. I am a cinematographer, photographer, and artist. Editing is the nexus, and it is helpful to be able to understand aspects of sound design, cinematography, writing, etc… A lot of the archive montages were built in rhythmic layers, as one would compose a song, with various instruments or samples built in several audio layers.
This is the first feature documentary I have worked on as a cinematographer and editor, and the first project that I have worked so intimately for so long. Most of the projects (including this one) I come upon by chance encounters.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Lee: I used Adobe Premiere Pro. It was the system I was most familiar with, and I already had a Creative Cloud subscription.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Lee: I don’t know if there was a particular scene that was most difficult. I think the most difficult part of cutting the film was in all of these parts living harmoniously together as a whole. There were so many intentions, and they were all very important to honor because they were all key in stringing together the complex nature of how all of these things live together inside of Milisuthando, and also in the South African consciousness.
There are so many different pieces of history, types of material, and modes of storytelling in the film, and they all converge. The only way we could make sense of it was to separate the film into five parts. Then it was about finding a way to weave, piece by piece, each part seamlessly into one another. The poetic voice, which exists in the spiritual plane of the film, was key in creating a rhythm of lifting off and landing into each section.
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?
Lee: The making of this film has been a pilgrimage. The film really changed me, but in every way that I had hoped it would. I feel different, but the film itself feels the same. It is as sacred and as certain of itself today as the first day that Milisuthando called me to ask me to be a part of it. It’s strange to describe — because on one hand, it feels so unbelievable that we have really put this film together into a coherent whole… but on the other, at the risk of sounding esoteric, every time the film joyously revealed a new part to us, it felt so familiar and so known. There was a strange confidence, despite the mystery of it, that the film knew what form it wanted to exist in and all we needed to do was serve it. There is a strange certainty of how it lives inside of my mind and soul.
After four and a half years, I’m still trying to understand what really happened.
It’s nerve-wracking to release it into the world, but as it goes into the world, it will be able to morph and form new meanings within new people.