Editor and documentary filmmaker Helen van Dongen died at age 97 on Sept. 28. As an editor, van Dongen worked with the likes of Joris Ivens and Robert Flaherty, and made a handful of films of her own before retiring in her early 40s.
According to the [London] Guardian obit, van Dongen was “especially admired for raising the level of artistry in film editing and for her inventive approach to sound editing.” Van Dongen’s technique – which she had learned in Paris and Berlin – consisted of deconstructing and then reassembling the soundtrack in order to add stylistic complexity to her films. She also studied with Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vsevolod Pudovkin.
In the late 1920s, the Amsterdam-born van Dongen joined forces with Ivens to establish the Dutch film society Filmliga. The duo began working together on De Brug / The Bridge (1928) and Regen / Rain (1929), and continued on throughout the 1930s. Van Dongen edited Iven’s best-known film, The Spanish Earth (1937), which remains one of the most respected documentaries about the horrors of the Spanish civil war, and The 400 Million (1938), a look at the Japanese invasion of China, with narration by Fredric March. (The film’s title refers to China’s population at the time.)
Ivens and van Dongen were briefly married in the 1940s, though their last cinematic collaboration was the 1940 Power and the Land, about the struggle to bring electricity to rural areas in the United States.
For Robert Flaherty, she edited The Land (1942), about the effect of mechanization on American farmlands, and the disappointing (though much revered in some quarters, quite possibly because of Richard Leacock’s camera work) Louisiana Story (1948), a piece of propaganda for oil drillers in Louisiana’s wetlands. (The pseudo-documentary was sponsored by Standard Oil.)
As a documentarian, van Dongen produced and edited Spain in Flames, a compilation film on the civil war narrated by John Dos Passos, and during World War II directed a couple of compilation films: Russians at War (1942) and News Review No 2 (1945), which featured assorted combat footage. She also directed and produced educational shorts for several sponsors.
Van Dongen’s final film was made for the United Nations in 1950. She produced, directed, and edited Of Human Rights, a celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She then got married, quit films, and settled in Vermont.
Her diaries about the making of Louisiana Story were published in 1998.
Film critic and historian Richard Griffith labeled the Ivens-van Dongen films “a collaboration which has been one of the most fruitful in film history, but which has tended to obscure Helen van Dongen’s own quite distinct talent.”