Isidore Bethel is an editor, director, and producer whom Filmmaker named one of the "25 New Faces of Independent Film" in 2020. We recently spoke with him about his work on the SXSW documentary feature What We Leave Behind.
What We Leave Behind synopsis: At the age of 89, Julián takes one last bus ride to El Paso, Texas, to visit his daughters and their children—a lengthy trip he's made without fail every month for decades. After returning to rural Mexico, he quietly starts building a house in the empty lot next to his home. In the absence of his physical visits, can this new house bridge the distance between his loved ones? Director Iliana Sosa films her grandfather's work, gently sifting through Julián's previously unspoken memories and revealing both the pragmatism and poetry of his life. WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND unfolds as a love letter to her grandfather, as well as an intimate exploration of her own relationship with him and his homeland.
PH: How long have you been in the industry and where do you draw your inspiration from?
Isidore Bethel: I started making stop-motion animations when I was ten, editing in-camera with an analog camcorder. Ten years later, as an undergraduate at Harvard, I started editing my first feature with French director Dominique Cabrera, who was a visiting professor at the time. An editor with far more experience, Marc Daquin, then edited my rough cut into what would become Grandir (2013). In the film, Dominique hopes to feel less anxious about her place in the world, which leads her to a hospital in Algeria, the site of her mother’s anonymous birth. Whether I’m editing, producing, or directing, I find inspiration in situations where filmmaking helps us make sense of overwhelming experiences – it’s a means of survival. I’ve purposefully set out to work with colleagues who are open-minded, sensitive, and courageous. Together, we carve out spaces where we can make mistakes, exploring ideas, thoughts, and feelings freely and associatively. Having fun is essential. Mutual respect, appreciation, and curiosity feel like preconditions for a creative collaboration – and those feelings are the most inspirational to me.
PH: What made you sign onto this project?
Isidore Bethel: A mutual friend and colleague, Jamie Gonçalves, introduced us. Jamie produced a film that I directed (Acts of Love, 2021) and another that I edited (Caballerango, 2018) and had just met director Iliana Sosa at Sundance. Speaking with her on a video call, I found her warmth, generosity, and thoughtfulness truly stunning. I asked her to send me an hour or two of unedited footage selections that moved, mesmerized, upset, or surprised her. I replied with notes on everything that came to mind as I watched. This gave Iliana a chance to spend time inside my head and to see how I might approach the material down the line. Those notes also helped me figure out what I would give to the project, what I’d take away, and how this material might tell a story that also had personal resonance for me. Bonds with my elders are vitally important to me, and they feature heavily in my work (So Late So Soon, Acts of Love, the upcoming Semillas de pólvora and Happy You’re Here). I’d recently spent several weeks caring for my father after a mysterious illness, and I’d been missing Mexico, a country where I’d lived for three years between 2014 and 2017. All of these factors – plus Iliana’s sheer radiance as a person – convinced me that she and her film had much to teach me.
PH: How do you know if a film is going to get into SXSW?
Isidore Bethel: I don’t know! It seems to hinge on factors beyond my control. Screening What We Leave Behind at SXSW has been a highlight of my career, though. Iliana is from Texas and teaches at UT Austin; part of the film takes place in El Paso. In many ways, premiering in Austin felt like a homecoming – the audiences were so enthusiastic. The film is about a man who wanted to leave life with his children and grandchildren at his side. It felt like a gift to screen it in person with Iliana, her mother María Elia Sosa, producer Emma D. Miller, and cinematographer Monica Wise Robles all in attendance.
PH: Can you describe what it was like collaborating with the other pros (like the director) about feedback?
Isidore Bethel: Iliana gave me a lot of space to develop a personal relationship with the material and her family members who appear in it. I made sure to verbalize my reactions, feelings, and thoughts as often as possible. This felt crucial, especially since we were editing remotely for most of post-production. It laid groundwork for the trust and love that have come to characterize our collaboration. Iliana’s comments always reflected her artistic and ethical grounding with crystal clarity – my job was to translate them into specific choices we were making with the sounds and images. Later on in the edit, I realized that my task was shifting. We’d reached a solid structure with the existing material, but Iliana sensed that we weren’t done. Producer Emma D. Miller and I developed new strategies for listening to and encouraging Iliana’s powerful feelings as they were struggling to find form. This ultimately led us to generate new material together.
PH: Do you have a favorite editing sequence? If so, what was it?
Isidore Bethel: There’s a moment where Iliana has just come back from cleaning and decorating her grandmother’s grave on Día de Muertos. She’s in the kitchen with her uncle and she asks him about her grandma, his mom – how did her premature death affect everyone? Iliana’s questions seek to tease out causality between the death and the family’s subsequent migration to the US. Jorge’s answers instead focus on sparse images and inscrutable memories: his mom’s hot temper, her affinity for crocheting, her habit of sitting under a mesquite tree when her nose bled. Their interaction reflects contrasts between members of two successive generations who have grown up in different countries – one who seeks out knowledge and the other who’s at peace with not knowing. The five-minute scene plays out in a single shot.
PH: What were some of the editing challenges you encountered? How did you handle those?
Isidore Bethel: We’d reached a solid rough cut, but Iliana felt a desire for the film to echo more of her experiences with the land in rural Durango. I was reluctant to add in descriptive landscape shots to what was otherwise a densely meaningful edit. Thanks to the Jacob Burns Center’s Creative Culture Residency, she and I spent a couple of weeks together in person in Pleasantville, New York, to figure out what was missing. The process, with key creative contributions from Emma, involved Iliana recalling experiences, stories, and legends from Durango that I transcribed and condensed in a first draft in English. From there, we’d pass drafts back and forth, translating and reshaping the language until it both matched Iliana’s spoken voice and dramatically complemented the film’s onscreen narrative. We were then able to record the audio in the Burns Center’s sound studio, 100 yards from the house where we were staying. Then we’d walk back home and pull those recordings into our timeline, where their presence allowed us to reconsider footage we’d previously overlooked.
PH: Let's talk about your experience using Premiere Pro. What was that like? How did it help you accomplish your work?
Isidore Bethel: The way I edit mostly involves trimming the beginnings and endings of shots and rearranging them in sequence. Premiere allows me to do this quickly and efficiently. One feature that proved particularly useful during the pandemic lockdowns was being able to send Iliana a project file that she could easily relink to the mirror drive she had. Beyond that, the program’s integration with Photoshop has also allowed me to execute basic visual effects – and sometimes even perfect them for a DCP – all in the edit itself. The basic color correction and sound mixing within Premiere helped our rough cut screenings better approximate and envision what the final theatrical experience would be like. This played a big role in our creative approach. The morph cut function has also been such a treat – it sometimes helps me tease out longer duration in a shot, maintaining a certain gentleness or wonder, when I’d otherwise have to resort to a jump cut.
PH: What advice would you have for directors on working with editors?
Isidore Bethel: I’ve had the opportunity to work with two fabulous artists, Sandie Bompar and Francis Leplay, on the two first-person films I’ve directed, Liam and Acts of Love. My role as a director with both Sandie and Francis was to give them space to explore their own desires with the footage. I wanted to foster conditions where they could take an idea and run with it, ultimately building narratives with a meaningful impact on their own lives. Sandie is an exceptionally sensitive and careful editor; Francis is an actor and novelist who had never edited a film before. In both instances, I wanted each to craft a story that was as much theirs as it was mine. Their artistic choices surprised and delighted me. My job was to nurture relationships where each felt comfortable doing what they wanted. They’ve both become dear friends. Francis describes Acts of Love as a self-portrait he made of me. I might characterize it as one he made of himself, using material from my life. As an editor, I gravitate towards projects where the dynamics and stakes are similar.