I met with Nina Ijäs, the co-writer and editor of HOPE FROZEN, at DocPoint 2020 to talk about her career, how to approach death as a topic, and the differences between cutting fiction and documentaries.
This interview is edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How did you get started in editing?
I worked as journalist in radio and television, and I quit my job to pursue something that I could do with more thought. I wanted to go deeper into things than what is possible in journalism today. It was almost by chance, because I had done drama, and I realized it was a very pure form of storytelling. When I actually I started editing, it was so obvious that this was something that I should have been working on all along.
What was the first thing you worked on as an editor?
The absolute first thing I edited was the test for the university. I had never touched picture editing before, I had only done sound. But when you’ve edited sound and worked in journalism, you understand the process. You start thinking about it as a dramaturg instead of just the effect of pretty pictures after each other. I also worked a lot during my studies, editing anything I could. I did anything that came along. Student films, art films, friends projects. I did a bunch of series and projects for YLE, where I had worked before.
When I graduated I edited a lot of 30-60min documentaries, some for TV and some fiction shorts. My first feature abroad was FAMILY IN A BUBBLE by Minji Ma, a South Korean film.
Did you get in on the first try into Aalto?
I did, I think it’s because I fell in love with editing as I was doing it. There wasn’t the pressure others seem to have, where they’ve had this idea that they need to pursue for a long time. I hoped that something would find me, and editing did. Then during my time at Aalto I started a production company that did a travel show for YLE. That in turn taught me how to produce stuff. So I enjoyed myself immensely. I was hungry for it.
What do you find is the major difference in editing docs and fiction?
As a documentary editor you’re also a writer; you’re writing as you edit. So you need patience and stamina to look at the story. I think my background as a journalist and the way I interpret the world comes into play there. With Hope Frozen, I co-wrote the script with the director when I joined the project.
With fiction it’s a lot more about problem solving. I like that because I studied drama, I can see if the actors performances are working well in the edit. So I can work with their pacing, their breathing, and it feels like a three dimensional puzzle.
Working on a documentary is like a needle in a haystack, except the needle isn’t a needle. It’s one end of a thread in a ball of yarn with many threads. You never know where it’s going to lead. You follow it and slowly but surely you start to see the shape of a film. Like trying to remember a dream.
Even though I work in both documentary and fiction, and I enjoy both, with documentaries it’s almost like a love affair.
You’ve also edited music videos and advertisements including the TV-shows. Are music videos easier to work on? Is that more rigid?
The most rigid work has been stuff like milk commercials. The advertising world is structured and the most conservative. With music videos you work with a good team and artist and it’s more like going back to art school. You have a lot of material, a good song, and you just sort of throw yourself into it and have fun. I usually work from Berlin where I have peace and quiet, then I send versions to them. I have a lot of freedom for interpretation. Sadly there’s not a lot of money in that, but hopefully that’s going to change now that music videos are growing as well.
Is it easier to edit something short like that which requires two minutes to make a point compared to a documentary?
It’s easier in the sense that with a music video you have end. You know that you’re going to take a weekend and have fun with it. But with a documentary it can take nine months.
They’re completely different beasts though, so I wouldn’t say that either is easy, you just have to follow them differently. With a music video you have the song as a blueprint. A documentary is a molecule, it spreads everywhere and you have to see it all at once.
With a topic like Hope Frozen, it must have taken a while to pick a direction in what story you’re telling.
It took a very long time to find this film, and we had many other approaches in mind.
In the beginning of a project I always like to look at as much of the material with the director as I can and ask what their dream is. So that I’m aware what they’re trying to shape, but in the end it’s the material that will lead me. I’ll start with the dream, then the material, and I’ll make five very short one-page scripts. I’ll suggest what could be the theme in each one and I ask the director which one they want to pursue.
With HOPE FROZEN we were both interested in the scientific and philosophical aspects: What happens when we die, what if we could live forever? Pailin Wedel had interviewed many scientists about this that never ended up in the film, and we have many versions where we go into these long scientific discussions about the topic. As we worked, and we worked for a long time, we came to realize that this was a story about love and the family, and the more we took out the science, the more the movie started to live and breathe as it should.
If someone asks me afterwards what an editor does on a film like this, it’s because they have a feeling that the story is being told in such a clear way that you don’t notice the editing. It’s at times like these I feel like I’ve succeeded.
There’s a beautifully edited part where the family goes to see Einz in her cryo tube that is incredible to watch. It’s painful and personal but not exploitative in any way.
It was one of the very first conversations that we had; how do we respect the memory of this dead child? Pailin is a wonderful journalist and photographer, who has worked with really difficult subjects in Southeast Asia. This is her first film and she has a very strong sense of ethics and morals, as do I.
For me it was very clear that we drew a line that we didn’t cross. The family had a lot of material from Einz’s illness and death, and many would have used that footage for a very strong emotional effect. But it felt exploitative of the memory of a child who can’t defend themselves. I’m a strong believer in respecting the images of people from wars and those that have passed — even the dead have rights. So I made myself a limit of five images from when Einz was ill and to not choose the ones where she’s terribly ill, but ones where she interacts with her family and has agency.
There’s only one in the finished documentary of her very sick; the image where she’s in a coma. Otherwise we wanted to show her as healthy and let her family speak about her illness.
If it had pursued the more sensationalist angle I think it would have repelled me as a viewer. It’s already incredibly hard to watch a child go through this. But now her passing is more poignant, and we feel her absence more than her presence.
That was one of the first sentences we actually used with different composers for the film. The music should always be an Einz-shaped hole, the absence of a child.
What do you do to prevent yourself from becoming too close to the material? Do you try and be objective or do you let your emotions guide you?
That’s an interesting question, because I find that I need both. I need to zoom in and out. When you think of the film’s structure, you have to be able to look at the detail in the scene or an edit between images, but also the the big picture. Both the trees and the forest. It’s like opening and closing that blinders of your emotions from one moment to the next. I will never watch the film every day, I save it and gear up for it several days in advance. In order to get there I open my senses and I try to see it with fresh eyes.
What kind of a reaction has there been around the world?
We were actually surprised that people weren’t more angry or critical of Cryonics, because they have a bad reputation in some parts of the world. And that’s something we had to consider when we were editing that it was something that might upset people. That the grief was being exploited in some way. But people have more strong empathy for the family, and some people are – perhaps criticizing their methods or beliefs, but nobody has said that they’re crazy. It’s a nice thing to see that people are willing to understand reality through another person’s experiences.
How do you start work on something new? Is it a process of constantly looking for something else or do you need one project to fully leave your system before you can go on?
I’m constantly meeting people with interesting ideas, as an editor I’m happy that I’m a person who gets very excited about other people’s ideas. There are already a bunch of things that I’m already half involved with. Because I’m also a documentary script-writer, where I don’t need to edit, but I can still be part of the dream and help put together that idea.
Right now I’m actually working on a lot of fiction. It’s a phase in my life I guess! I’m sort of waiting for the next film to come along and collecting strength for it, because HOPE FROZEN was a nine month project, and it does take its toll.
It does relate back to which is harder to work with. It’s like training for a marathon, and you can’t do that every day. A music video is like a palette cleanser because it’s a quick exercise. A feature is a marathon, and a series is a week of different kinds of training. I need all of them to keep myself fresh.
You’re keeping busy.
I am. I’m extremely grateful that people want me to edit their things. I’ve had people who’ve worked with me who come over after they’d seen something new I’ve done elsewhere, and they’re like “I saw that thing you do again, where the first three images juxtapose each other to tell the story.”
I like that people pick up on my small things.