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Positive Trauma: Editor Mathilde Bonnefoy on CITIZENFOUR

Mathilde Bonnefoy (Photo by/courtesy of Dirk Wilutzky)

Paris-born editor Mathilde Bonnefoy has criss-crossed documentary and fiction, working with directors such as Wim Wenders (The Soul of a Man) and, most prominently, Tom Tykwer. Her first feature editing credit is the director’s time-bending international hit Run Lola Run, and she has continued to work with Tykwer on Heaven, Three and The International, among others. Long based in Berlin, Bonnefoy, as she relates below, was sought after by Poitras because of her work on Tykwer’s films and the “thriller” nature of CITIZENFOUR’s source material. Below, in the final days of post-production, I speak to Bonnefoy about encrypted workflows, working with Poitras and meeting, through footage, Edward Snowden.

Let me just start by asking you how you connected with Laura. How did you become involved with this project? She knew my work, and I suppose she was particularly fond of Run Lola Run, which was one of the films I had edited. So, that was probably the reason she knew me, and she wanted to work with me. And also, as you know, she had some constraints about where she could be and edit. She had to edit outside of the U.S., and one of the countries she was allowed to edit in — which was at the request of some of her protagonists — was Germany. So she decided for Berlin and asked me.

Talk a little bit more about that aspect of the project, because obviously there was a high degree of secrecy in dealing with the postproduction of the film. On a technical level, as an editor, did that affect your workflow on this project? Our whole way of working is completely new to me. Basically, before I met Laura, I had just a peripheral awareness of encryption. I thought it was something for geeks, and suddenly, it became the major part of my life. So, yeah, we do everything with encryption. We encrypt the hard drives we work off of, which means that every morning, when we boot the computer for editing, we enter many passwords just to access the footage. Encryption basically works as a capsule that you create around your footage or whatever you want to keep secure. It’s like a container, a virtual container that is only to be opened with a key, and the key is the passwords. We communicate per encrypted email. And we are in general very, very careful about some of the things we say that are sensitive. If we have a conversation that’s particularly confidential, we’ll move the electronics out of the room, or we’ll just meet somewhere outside of the editing room, without our phones.

What was it about Run Lola Run that interested Laura in working with you on the film? One of the things she was interested in was to have a fiction editor. I mean, it’s not like I’m a “fiction editor,” but she knew that I had a lot of experience with fiction. And she had this feeling that this film she was working on — and this was prior to Ed Snowden contacting her — had some thriller potential, that the film would have a narrative pull to it that was similar to what we could find in fiction films. So, she was quite interested in that part of my experience. Run Lola Run is a highly kinetic film, and I think she was interested in general by that aspect, the modernity, because of course the film we’re dealing with now is highly technical. It speaks to a younger generation.

Could you maybe talk a little bit about the challenges pre-Edward Snowden, and then maybe what happened when he became part of the movie? It’s a trauma, in a way a positive trauma, that has taken us a long time to readjust to, actually, because once he arrived into our world, he completely changed the film, and it took us a while to accept that situation. Not that we didn’t want to give him the space, much to the contrary. But we had other protagonists we had completely imagined as being an important part of our film who became more and more sidelined by — how can I say — the presence of Snowden. So, yeah, we had to give them up one by one, and it took us a long time to do so.

You probably know that one of the protagonists of the film as it used to be planned was Julian Assange. He would have also allowed us to make a film that had some thriller qualities because Laura had extraordinary access to him. She was able to shoot scenes that were really very impressive and that had enormous narrative potential. And we also had a strong presence of Jacob Applebaum, who’s a hacker and activist. He was traveling through the Middle East a lot, warning activists about surveillance, training them and everything. So, we had a very broad film with highly interesting characters. And we were deep into that; we had quite a long cut already that we liked when Snowden appeared. And we had to reimagine [the film] from scratch.

Laura is a character in this film much more than I imagine she was in the earlier, pre-Snowden version. What were some of the challenges of acknowledging that and working it into the film? It was very difficult for her to accept being a part of the film. It’s something that goes extremely against her instincts and her desires. She naturally is the person in the background who no one notices, and she seems to like it that way. We — I say “we” meaning me, but also my husband, Dirk Wilutzky, who is the producer of the film — started suggesting to her that she include herself. And we didn’t know yet exactly in what forms we were suggesting to her to film herself, and for her it was almost unthinkable. We kept pushing her in different directions, and she also slowly realized that she needed to be in the film.

But it took us also a while to fine-tune the way in which she would be present. We had a few scenes where we had her visible, and we tried that. Then there was a moment when we realized that these letters she was getting could become a narrative line through the film. Our first idea was to ask Snowden to read them. And suddenly, there was the idea come upon that she could read them. And as soon as she did that, we knew: Okay, that’s it. She has a beautiful voice, I think — delicate and precise and very feminine, which does the film extraordinarily well because it’s all men. So, suddenly you have this balance of — how can I say — vibrations. And also, there’s something about her voice that is extremely strong for narration. Immediately you think you’re in a fiction film because it’s such a beautiful inner voice.

As soon as we heard her voice, I knew that was the thing we needed to do. And that gave us the color for how her presence would continue to be in the film, meaning we feel her but we don’t see her. So, now we just have one tiny, little moment in the film where we see her in —

In the mirror in Hong Kong. Exactly. That was extremely difficult for me to convince her to use. I suggested it to her a long time ago; she said no. And then it disappeared completely. And then, at some point, it reemerged. And so, there’s just a little moment where we see her, but the rest is her implied presence.

And just to complete the picture, the other level on which we introduced her, in order to try to balance it throughout the film, was with cards. In the film, you have these cards explaining things. We’re still working on it, but we tried to fine-tune the tone so that it felt subjective but not too much like a diary. Sometimes we have something like field notes at the bottom of the image. And the other element we’re using to signify her presence are these chats in the third act.

I found it fascinating that some of the more emotional moments in the film are expressed onscreen through chat dialogues and emails rather than voiceover or the person onscreen. For example, Glenn telling Laura that The Guardian has handed over the Snowden archive to The New York Times. Laura responds with something like, “What!!!!” But with that text you understand the depth of her relationship with Snowden and Glenn and how invested they are in this story. It’s a fine line we’re treading, and we’re still working on it. For example, you describe a chat that we have removed in the last two days from the edit. [Laughs] We’re also working a lot these days about: When is the first moment in the film that we read the word “I,” meaning Laura? There’s one version where it’s at the very beginning of the film and another after we have introduced Glenn.

Any story dealing with surveillance and the NSA is going to be necessarily technical in nature. Was the issue of how much technical detail to include in the film a tough one? We indeed have highly, highly technical footage — more than we used in the edit. Yes, it’s a fine line. We’ve consciously decided to include moments of explanation of the archive, for example, or excerpts of the letters that Snowden wrote to Laura that are very technical and that we know people will not understand. But our hope and our feeling is that, if the dose is right, if the tone is right, the viewer will understand that he or she does not need to understand the technicality but can just be introduced to a world of concepts and vocabulary and possibilities that in itself is what we’re talking about. The one thing that helps us a lot is that Snowden, as a person, is extraordinarily articulate. He is able to explain the most complex things in such a way that, once he’s explained it, everyone else understands it and is able to explain it to other people. He has such a clear mind that, when he explains something, it’s graspable.

As an editor, what was important for you to capture about Snowden in the film? What quality of character? When Laura came back from Hong Kong, she dumped this footage in my lap. I think it was too much for her to watch it because the experience had been so overwhelming. She told me many times that she had the feeling she did not recollect anything of it; it was like a black hole she had fallen into. Because of the adrenaline, I suppose, or the excitement, or the rush of feelings in the moment, shooting was such that it was all in a dream, almost.

She asked me to view the footage in the utmost detail, which I did for a long time. So, I was alone with it, and that’s how I met Snowden, in a way. And I was overwhelmed, watching that footage, by the astonishing purity of his intentions. My impression, and I believe it’s the impression one gets from the footage, is that he did the things that he did for purely ethical reasons and with a candor that I was not expecting. Because I was expecting simply a human being, and every human being is ambivalent and has complex feelings and lots of facets to his personality.

But in his case, it was something really overwhelming to me. I had to almost lie down after watching the footage, sometimes. I was really, really moved by something that felt like someone opening his heart. And then just there was just a steady stream of authenticity and truth. So, that’s what I saw and that’s what I’ve felt obliged to keep, to disclose, in the film, to protect and to enhance and to show. That’s what I feel compelled to state for him.

Aside from the qualities of the films themselves, what have you learned from working with Tom Tykwer that you brought to this film? Communication, I would say. My work with Tom has always been extremely verbal, from the pleasure of just talking about each other’s lives to talking about the work at hand and the creative process. We’ve always enjoyed the ability to express very clearly and in much detailed analysis what we’re thinking and feeling. And I think it’s extremely important in a creative process to be able to analyze what one feels and communicate it to someone else so that the person is informed and can react and talk.

And now the other half of that question: every relationship with a director is different. As an editor, you have to adapt yourself to the other person’s aesthetics, the way they want to work, their personality. How would you characterize your relationship with Laura? What was specific about her that you then made part of your editing practice? I would say there’s something chaotic about the work with Laura that I discovered with utmost interest and pleasure, which is that we don’t move like a steady train forward, and deal with this and this and this and this, in a linear way. It’s more sort of a stream of consciousness, the way we deal with things. We’ll jump from one thing to the next, and go back, and then let something fall, and then go to the next thing. That’s a very quick answer.

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