Bentley Dean’s 2009 documentary Contact marked the beginning of the director’s working relationship with editor Tania Nehme. Together with fellow director Martin Butler, the pair would go on to collaborate on First Footprints and A Sense of Self, Oscar-nominated feature film Tanna, and more recently, Facing Monsters and Amongst Us – Neo Nazi Australia. IF finds out how their bond has strengthened over time.
How I first met Bentley was that he sent me an email in 2009 with a link to a film he and Martin Butler had been working on called Contact, which he had gotten to an
Based on that assembly, I absolutely wanted to do it. I’d been predominantly working as a drama editor, and you could see the drama in what Bentley and Martin were intending to do. It was perfect.
I knew Bentley from Race Around the World. I remembered he was the one that had a balaclava on his head when he reported, because the whole thing was about the journalist being on camera and he was about the story. He was unusual and that appealed to me.
Bentley shoots his own material. What was beautiful about Contact was that he spent time with the one mob and got them to tell the story, which put them into the place of
remembering seeing white people for the first time and got them to perform. I just watched and listened to him speaking and engaging with them from behind the camera. The trust that he brings as a director and cinematographer is just beautiful.
Also his rhythm, and the way he thinks about the post process covers everything reall well.
So far we’ve collaborated on about six projects. I have long-term work relationships with directors and they take time to build. With Bentley, you get permission to go into your own headspace because he makes creative space.
The project that stands out for me is Tanna, where he and Martin invited me to Vanuatu. I got to live and be with the Yakel people for five or six weeks and watch him as a one-man crew, with Martin flying in and out to record sound.
I spent two weeks on my own with the translations, putting together the material, and I knew in the first 20 minutes that there was something special there. I can never usually say that about the work because I’m always judgmental, but this was. The way that film grew from Bentley taking his family overseas so his kids could experience another culture was just incredible.
Our working relationship hasn’t really changed much over the years. I don’t like to talk about my ideas – the actual execution and the talking just don’t go together – and he trusts that.
When we’re working together, he’s always telling stories and planting seeds and in the back of my mind – I’m hearing everything. I’m getting the colours, the picture, and the feelings.
He just gives you room to go into that emotional, psychic, creative space and pull whatever it is from that box. It can be scary showing who you are, and he embraces that.
I initially knew of Tania from her work with Rolf de Heer over the years. The Tracker, in particular, is one of my all-time favourite films, and a lot of that is due to some extraordinary editing, on top of everything else.
With Contact, my co-director Martin Butler and I thought the material was so strong that we needed the best editor. I cold emailed Tania and luckily she responded to the material.
It was just a no-brainer to continue working with her after that because it had been such a real magic experience.
I was used to almost hovering over an editor just to make sure I’d got what I wanted. What we found with Tania, is that if you gave her peace, she would come back with ways of seeing the material that you haven’t even conceived of yourself.
As a director, you sometimes start off with a wishlist where you try and turn the chaos or reality into a narrative or a striking film, and you’re playing with ideas. Sometimes Tania will seemingly completely ignore you, and we were always really happy when she did that because, as she’s probably said, it’s sometimes hard for her to articulate herself with words She’ll say, “Come back tomorrow, I’ll articulate it via the edit,” and then you see it and it’s like, “Wow, okay”.
That, in turn, would spark off a whole set of new ideas. It becomes this lovely feedback loop where it’s hard to delineate who the director is. On Amongst Us – Neo Nazi Australia, I felt like she’d gone so far in that direction that I believed she should be get co-directing credit but she absolutely refused.
As a result of our relationship and her faith and sense of adventure, Tania came and flew over to Tanna to edit. The people we were living with constructed a hut for editing made out of materials from the bush with a dirt floor and an extra solar panel to keep the computer going.
It was just wonderful because she could see where the story was being generated from. She was able to assemble some scenes from a rough assembly and go, for example, “Oh, actually I feel like the relationship between the grandfather and the grandson was not developed enough, you need some scenes to do that.” From
there, we’d be able to call a meeting with the village and say, “We’d like to do something, What are some possibilities?” and lo and behold, come up with a scene and shoot it that afternoon. That kind of fine tuning, immediate response, hyper
collaboration just wouldn’t have been possible if she wasn’t there.
I actually don’t think our relationship has changed much since we’ve been working together. It feels kind of like a one-way trajectory, of just getting closer and closer the older we get and the more experiences we share.
If there was a change on a professional level, she feels like she can take the initiative a lot more than maybe in the past, which we completely encourage. Apart from that, I would say it’s just been a continual rise upwards in terms of friendship.
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