THE KUITTINEN TOUCH

This year’s Aho & Soldan Lifetime Achievement Award goes to film editor Tuuli Kuittinen. The Aho & Soldan Lifetime Achievement Award has been granted since the first DocPoint festival in 2002 for significant efforts in developing creative Finnish documentary filmmaking, as well as a long and outstanding career as a documentary film director. Documentary film maker Jouko Aaltonen interviewed the winner.

Over a hundred films, including short films, feature-length fiction films, but above all else, strong documentary films. Tuuli Kuittinen’s resume is impressive. In the business, she is known as a skilled and instinctive editor, who can pull forth the essential moments from a mass of materials. She has her own signature, the Kuittinen touch.

During her studies in the 1990s at the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Kuittinen quickly realised that editing films was her thing: “I realised I didn’t want to be a director. I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to make the materials myself, but rather I get to build a film from the takes created by others. I get to immerse myself in them, to ponder and have great realizations.”

Kuittinen has edited both long fiction films as well as documentaries. Editing them however is like two entirely different professions. “Fiction is the collective creation of so many individuals, in a way it has already been edited in advance. Documentaries can be very precisely planned ahead too, but most times they find their form during the editing stage.” When she was young, editing a feature-length fiction film was a dream come true for Kuittinen, but these days documentaries take the lead. “Editing a long documentary is definitely the gold standard.”

Over the years, Kuittinen has developed her own approach to editing films. Usually she looks through all of the material, either with the director or alone, since directors don’t always have the time to peruse through the entire archival material. Kuittinen always has a notebook on hand. There she jots down which materials are usable. “I don’t look for anything specific, I try to keep an open mind and see what I come across, to see which frames connect to each other in different ways. It’s especially rewarding when you get a lightbulb moment about how you can use material and what it associates with.”

The structure of a film is planned together with the director, using a nifty flip chart or post-it notes on the wall. For example John Webster’s new film Donner – Privat’s structure was built around several keywords written on a board. Cooperation with the director was collaborative brainstorming which consisted of countless conversations. Premiering at DocPoint festival, the film is based on long interviews held just before Jörn Donner’s death, and on a previously unseen photograph collection, consisting of pictures taken by Donner himself. Kuittinen praises the editing of the film as an exceptional process. It was a unique experience to get to explore such private worlds.

Once a film’s structure is roughly mapped out, Kuittinen begins to consistently edit the film from beginning to end. Some editors work on scenes or segments in an unchronological order from start to finish, but that’s not Kuittinen’s speed. The substance is molded through analytical ponderings, while the rhythm is built through atmospheres and vibes, “sense and emotion simultaneously”, as Kuittinen proclaims. She is neither “a crazy artist nor a dumb engineer”, but something inbetween.

Upon noticing mistakes, Kuittinen strives to correct them immediately, contrary to many of her editor peers who prefer to edit a rough cut of the entire film first. It’s important to Kuittinen to mend mistakes at this stage, because it affects the rhythm and emotion. She proceeds slowly, but leaves the work close to completion as she goes. “I’m real nitpicky, I just can’t leave even the smallest things alone when editing”.

Once a first draft of the film has been completed, Kuittinen and the director then proceed to sculpt and chisel it further into form. There are usually at least five different versions. Kuittinen says there is a danger in the editor feeling too satisfied with the final result too early in the process. The film can always be improved, it can take better shape and crystallise, but the film should also not be edited to the grave so that it can no longer breathe. In any case, the editing process inevitably has to end at some point, and that point is usually determined by the production deadline.

The relationship with the director is vital, and oftentimes they are the only form of a co-worker that an editor has. Each director is different, and each working relationship unique. Some directors will sit glued to the editor’s side in the cutting room, whilst others will stop by to watch ready-made episodes at appropriate intervals. The most important thing however is trust, and that there is a connection there, so that it’s nice to work together. Disagreements are discussed, and critique is both given and received. There always has to be a reason if something is changed, and decisions must always be reasoned. Kuittinen explains the best way to make these decisions is to simply edit and show various versions. A wise filmmaker also knows when to let go. “Sometimes the director realises this, sometimes I do”, chuckles Kuittinen. When it comes down to it though, the director is the one with the final say.

Kuittinen’s films are also imbued with a musical characteristic of the editor. She claims that all editors have a musical side and play some sort of instrument. That might not be entirely true, but in Kuittinen’s case she performs as the stemm singer of her band Hill of Beans, which specialises in party bangers. The band also includes editor Jukka Nykänen on the bass, and editor Riitta ”Rilli” Poikselkä behind the drums. A few other regular film folks are part of the band too. The artists call their band “Zombie-Rintamäkeläinens”, in reference to their bare stage performances.

When Kuittinen first heard of her Lifetime Achievement Award, she was worried it was a nudge for her to move on over to retirement, even though her life’s work was still a work in progress. An editor’s job is so enjoyable, that Kuittinen firmly plans on continuing it. “Hopefully there will always be work with compelling topics.” Over the years Kuittinen’s confidence in her own work has increased, and with it a sense of relaxation. The more at ease you are, the better the edited work. And that is certainly the case.

Jouko Aaltonen

(Translation: Lydia Taylerson)

Tuuli Kuittinen’s retrospective will be screened in a later date.