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Image Description: A photo of editor Stefani Saintonge sitting at a computer desk. She looks at her desktop computer as her hands are positioned to type at a keyboard. Behind her, a bulletin board is filled with index cards and notes. On either side of it, various cords and different colored tape hang on white pegboards

Issue 002 Spring 2021 Interviews

The Language of Cinema

An Interview With Stefani Saintonge

by Lendl Tellington

Stefani Saintonge. Photo by Lendl Tellington.

For some editors, their craft relies on the mercy of a director’s ideals. In best-case scenarios, editors bring their own set of values and distinct vision to each film. This collaborative process can make it difficult to distinguish whose voice sculpts the film. But when Stefani Saintonge is behind a cut, you feel it.

Saintonge, a first-generation Haitian American, is a multifaceted filmmaker who has homed in on a voice so proprietary that she has been tapped to cut films for a spectrum of artists and filmmakers including Simone Leigh (Untitled [M*A*S*H], 2018), Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young (Back and Song, 2019), Faren Humes (Liberty, Director’s-Cut, 2019), and Keisha Rae Witherspoon (T, 2019). Most recently, Saintonge edited Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in Thy Name (2021), helmed by filmmakers Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Bradford Young, Mishka Brown, and Nanette Nelms, collectively known as the Ummah Chroma.

To discuss Saintonge’s work as an editor, one must first look at how her experiences as a director inform her approach to filmmaking. We discussed some of her projects and experiences that have shaped her approach to editing.

This collaborative process can make it difficult to distinguish whose voice sculpts the film. But when Stefani Saintonge is behind a cut, you feel it.
Lendl Tellington: Can you tell me about how your experiences making your narrative short Seventh Grade (2014) inform your journey as a filmmaker?

Stefani Saintonge: I directed Seventh Grade at a time [when] I was scared of the medium. I didn’t have much experience. I wanted to show I could do a narrative film. Maybe it wasn’t coming from the best intentions. There’s this way of doing narratives—I thought you had to do it that way. And so I was very, very careful not to take risks. I still love this film, but I’ve had to grow to appreciate it more. I see Seventh Grade as a departure from what I was making in grad school.

LT: Were there certain stakes involved in making Seventh Grade that didn’t exist when you were making films in grad school that encouraged some of that hesitancy?

SS: I had a director of photography, an editor, and a producer for Seventh Grade. I was spending a lot more money. I wasn’t controlling every part of the process, and that felt less organic. In grad school for documentary film, I would shoot footage myself. My thesis, La Tierra de los Adioses [2015], was [shot] in Mexico with one of my good friends, Chantelle Flores. She was doing the sound and interviewing, and I was shooting and editing. It was a very intimate process. Fucked like a Star [2018; directed and edited by Saintonge] was like this too.

[Between 2015 and 2017, Saintonge took a number of trips to Haiti, visiting without her family for the first time. What resulted is Fucked like a Star. Much of the eight-minute experimental short brilliantly juxtaposes shots of the domestic lives of Black women (braiding, threading, and spice making) with archival footage of worker ants, contextualizing these everyday gestures as not only foundational in a cultural sense, but integral to survival.

This particular film evolved out of a collaboration between Saintonge and the film’s executive producer, Zuri Obi. It marked a return to the nonhierarchical manner the filmmaker employed while in grad school, but once Saintonge got her hands on the edit, the pair decided together to credit her as the film’s director.]

LT: How much of Fucked like a Star was preconceived versus developed through the edit?

SS: Zuri Obi, a good friend, was finding subjects and shooting them, and I ended up editing. I didn’t plan how the edit would go when we were shooting. All that was preconceived about the film was looking for and shooting work that is gendered, such as cooking and doing hair. That’s how I approach most projects—I see what the footage is telling me and find the rhythm based on that.

LT: Music plays a big role in Fucked like a Star. Once you get into the edit, do you chop to a playlist of songs?

SS: Zuri chose the first song (“Nan Point La Vie” by Siwo), and I loved it. It helped me get started [on the edit]. The rest was in reverse: we reached out to people for music. The middle section is the ants’ copulation part, so I wanted to find something waltzlike.

LT: Fucked like a Star is told in four parts. I’m curious if the chapters were a consequence of the edit.

SS: At some point the film felt like a long montage, so Zuri suggested chaptering it. That was an “aha” moment. The chapters suggest a storybook, and it worked well because we’re referencing a text, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. Segmenting the film forced me to come up with a new feeling for each chapter. It started to feel more like a film and less like a music video.

Saintonge's workspace. Photo by Lendl Tellington.

LT: Currently there are many projects utilizing collagelike editing that straddles film and music video modes. In your opinion, what makes a film distinct and not a music video?

SS: Narrative and thesis are a big part. People think experimental film doesn’t have a story—it’s random. I think there’s validity to that, but the successful ones have a narrative to the emotions the audience experiences. . . . I really understood that [when I worked on] Back and Song.

[A four-channel installation by Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young, Back and Song draws from a litany of archival footage focused on healing and medicinal practices within the African diaspora. Each channel follows its own course while the soundscapes occasionally synchronize across the entirety of the installation. Saintonge’s role was to assemble the provided archive to support Moorhead and Young’s thesis: “present health and wellness as part and parcel of the American Black experience from cradle to grave.”]

LT: What excited you about working with this archive?

SS: The thing I liked most was the archive. [The films were] shot and edited by white ethnographic filmmakers. It wasn’t raw footage. The archive was already cut, and so you’re cutting around their gaze. I was trying to find our own moments within their edit as a means to spotlight what their [white ethnographic] gaze couldn’t pick up.

LT: How did you marry four screens together for Back and Song—not knowing what the screening experience would be like since you were editing for a film installation in a century-old church, not a traditional theater experience?

SS: That was making me the most nervous. It was really hard. I had the split screen on my computer. I felt like I was getting an education every time I’d talk to Brad and Elissa about some research that they had come across. It feels like I’m just talking to the director, then they give me the footage and I just feel out the edit, hoping that I’m capturing the tone from our conversations.

LT: I notice there are similar songs used in Fucked like a Star and Back and Song.

SS: [Laughs] I’ve been found out! It’s the same artist actually, Ti Roro, and it’s from the same album. He’s a drummer from Haiti. I always like to cite Haiti.

LT: Can you tell me about experiencing Back and Song in person? Because you were only able to see the piece exhibited once it was open to the public.

SS: I was feeling emotional, sitting there and watching it. You’re really physically hugging your audience or something. And I think that’s what cinema is, capturing your audience. Experimental film has to do that without a character—sometimes without a protagonist, without a story arc.

You’re really physically hugging your audience or something. And I think that’s what cinema is — capturing your audience.
[For Liberty, a narrative short by Faren Humes, Saintonge’s process was a little different. The film fuses verité and neo-realist ideals within the landscape of a Miami gentrifying neighborhood. The story follows the relationship between two Black teenagers grappling with moving and growing apart. Humes brought Saintonge on to make a director’s cut of the film, after its acclaimed festival run.]
LT: There are two cuts of the film Liberty [directed by Faren Humes]. I am curious about how you got involved in the director’s cut?

SS: Faren and I have been friends since I was a teenager. We went to the same college, the University of Florida, together. When she finished graduate school, we lived together in New York. We go way back. Faren didn’t have the most fruitful editing process with the initial cut of Liberty. I will just say that. I have had similar experiences, so she said, “How about I just send you the drive?”

LT: In the first cut, there’s a scene showing the tension between Loggy [Milagros Gilbert] and Alex [Alexandra Jackson], and it ends with a dance battle. This all plays out as one sequence. In your director’s cut, this scene is broken up throughout the film as we follow Alex and Loggy through a day in Miami’s Liberty Square. What encouraged you to approach it that way versus the other cut’s more traditional chronology?

SS: I didn’t have the script. Looking at the footage, it felt like this dance was somehow a metaphor for their relationship. That was my instinct when I saw that. We continue coming back to the dance throughout the film because their whole relationship is right there.

The dance sequence was very poetic. Loggy and Alex are so good in terms of their skill. I like process. Women’s processes are important, and they’re something that shows up a lot in my work. I’m always going to like those quotidian moments of exchange amongst women because of my own interests. Americans tend to cut up everything. They think that the audience is going to get bored, but if the film calls for it, just let it play out.

LT: That reminds me of that moment included in your cut with the youngins playing dice. One asks Loggy for a freeze cup.

SS: Yes, I love it so much! You can tell they’re really playing. Faren said “cut,” and they were still going.

LT: The inclusion of that moment says so much more about Liberty as a community.

SS: There weren’t many takes, so there wasn’t much raw footage to choose from. That scene was important to me because Faren staged it so well. It’s rare to set something up that well, and it still is verité. I thought that was really cool.

Image Description: A woman sits on a brown couch with a small dog in her lap. Behind her, a group of bright green plants can be seen on a shelf, contrasting with the warm muted colors in the remainder of the photo.
Stefani Saintonge. Photo by Lendl Tellington.

LT: In Liberty’s director’s cut, there’s a sequence in which Loggy and Alex are dancing in the middle of the courtyard, glitching in and out of frame. It’s a very Stefani sequence.

SS: [Laughs] I was afraid to show it to Faren. That’s me playing around. I didn’t plan it out. There was a shot of them dancing and the same shot without them in the frame. I decided to cut them together as a sequence. I like including moments of magic realism.

[T (directed by Keisha Rae Witherspoon) is another Miami-based short narrative. Witherspoon employs a pseudo-documentary style as means of steeping the audience in her universe. We follow three individuals as they prepare for the annual T Ball, a celebration of those who have passed on. As with Liberty, Saintonge’s involvement was unanticipated and came later in the production process.]

LT: Can you tell me about how you became involved with T?

SS: Keisha is going to kill me for saying this, but it was Monica Sorelle (T’s producer) who called and asked me to cut it because Keisha was willing to let the film go. She had been sitting on the footage for like a year. I guess Keisha felt things weren’t captured well. Monica was like, “Maybe if you bring in an editor, we can get an outside opinion on what to do?” They wanted me to tell them honestly, as an outsider, if there was a film.

LT: Wow.

SS: And then I cut a draft of the film, and Keisha was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you did this.” Yeah! The footage was amazing. I was really touched by everything I saw. She didn’t see it. It’s crazy when you don’t see you’ve made something that’s genius.

LT: Almost all filmmakers have that moment. Some people think of filmmaking as an additive process, like you’re starting from square one. I think it’s a reductive process. You have all these options in the beginning. With each shot and edit, you’re slowly trimming away at something more specific, but that initial feeling of infinite possibilities can be overwhelming even after filming.

SS: That’s true. She was seeing the raw footage and seeing her mistakes or what she thought were mistakes. I didn’t think there were mistakes at all. I feel like Keisha was in the same place I was with Seventh Grade, feeling: Can I do this? I don’t know if I’m a filmmaker.

LT: It seems like the edit could have gone a number of ways. How did you make the decision to structure the film’s narrative? There wasn’t a script, right?

SS: That’s a good question: why structure it that way? There was a script, but I didn’t read the script. [Laughs] I never read the script. We were building to the RIP dance. And Dimples [Koko Zauditu-Selassie] was definitely the core, the heart of the film. Maybe that’s my trick. I did that with Liberty too: I find one person or one scene that can emotionally frame the film. It was a no-brainer to start and end with Dimples. She has the most emotional moment when we get to the big reveal of her son—no spoilers—and we’re leading to that.

I hope that that’s what people are connecting to watching T—the collective grieving. It’s such a smart film, and it’s humorous and magical. The whole concept of T is just brilliant. I’m so glad Keisha’s gotten that validation and it’s done as well as it has. I’m so happy for her.

LT: It’s not exactly easy to spot someone’s editing. The editor’s own aesthetic ideals can be compromised by the studio, RFP, or director’s needs. It seems like people are just like, “Yeah, just take my footage.” It is a testament to the trust that a lot of these folks have in you and your vision. The one thing that is obvious is your thumbprint in these pieces.

SS: What I love about these projects is working with people who want to experiment more, want to free up the process, and trust someone else to also be an artist with them. These are my favorite pieces I’ve edited.