Festen, otherwise known as The Celebration, is the brainchild of Thomas Vinterberg, who also wrote the DOGMA principles. The film takes place during a family reunion in celebration of the father’s birthday. During this, a ugly and perverse truth is revealed by one of his son’s, Christian; and family drama ensues as the audience wonders about what the truth really is about this family and their past. Watching this film is unlike most other viewing experiences, as it was filmed with 33mm film (handheld), it relied solely on diegetic sound and music, and it also relied solely on available light – (factors that play into the DOGMA principles). This film makes the viewer feel almost like they are watching a home video of a family reunion, or even like they are there along with the family, being a part of the celebration. While watching this film for the first time, I couldn’t help but wonder about how hard it must have been, not to shoot or direct, but to edit all of these moving, incredibly raw, and almost (intentionally) messy pieces of footage together to create a flowing finished piece that made sense in terms of story and character development without coming across as too unattractive or jarring to the viewer in terms of visuals and audio.
The book FilmCraft: Editing by Justin Chang explores the editing of The Celebration a bit by discussing the film’s editor Valdis Óskarsdóttir. He explains, “One of the film’s most potent scenes, in which Christian…stands up to deliver an altogether surprising toast at the birthday party…, derives much of its tension from Óskarsdóttir’s use of rapid cuts to continually frame and reframe the action from different angles. The result lends the proceedings the distinct sense of having been captured on the fly, while also making the viewer feel like a party guest with the best seat in the house.” Chang’s analysis holds true for the rest of the film as well. There is even a scene that shows everybody mingling while piano music plays in the background, and although the scene cuts several times to the many guests’ faces, the soft piano music in the background rarely seems to hiccup, and the flow of events, both audibly and visually, is smooth and makes sense for the scene. That’s the result of a good editor who understands the tone of the film and remains “invisible” even for a project of this nature. Óskarsdóttir comments, “I like that kind of editing, where you’re jumping around a lot, but it has to suit the story you’re telling.”
Óskarsdóttir makes a good point about editing in terms of story-telling and characters in this book as well as in an interview with Matthew Hammett Knott of Indie Wire. In FilmCraft: Editing, Óskarsdóttir explains, “Your loyalty always lies with the characters and the story, never with the director or producers. You should treat the film like a human being.” Similiarly, in her interview with Indie Wire, Óskarsdóttir says, “All you can do is watch the footage, watch the characters, and after a while, you know these characters better than your family – and you spend more time with them than your family. So you get totally into the story and into the character’s head, and you can say ‘that’s not how the character would behave’ or ‘he would never say anything like that’.” This is a very good point about editing and its correspondence to the end result of a film. If the editor knows the characters, she can relay their motivations and characteristics through cuts and juxtaposition of shots. The Celebration exemplifies her point because it is heavily geared toward its characters, their relationships with one another, their dialogue, their motivations, and their dynamics. We have to get to know Christian as well as his siblings and even his father in a fashion that will make us understand them, become connected to them, and still be intrigued by the story’s events, and although this has to do with the story and the way it was shot, these aspects rely heavily on the final cut of the project.
Overall, the editor has a big responsibility in conveying emotion and fluidly telling the story that the director intended. And, that being said, as each editor spends so much time with the story and the characters, each editor will also have a different outcome than the next, in terms of the final cut.