By now, I hope you’ve had a chance to see the incredible new documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. The film was years in the making, marked by crowdfunding efforts and a persistent zeal for getting Poly’s story into cinemas. While the pandemic ultimately led to more home streaming than in-theatre screenings, the documentary has provided fans of X-Ray Spex, as well as a new generation of filmgoers, with intimate access into the life of Poly Styrene. Celeste Bell, Poly’s daughter, co-directed the film with Paul Sng. Zoe Howe co-wrote the script with Bell and Sng. Xanna Ward Dixon edited, Marina Elderton composed the score, and so many others worked to make the project happen. I had a chance to chat with Xanna about the joys and challenges of editing such a distinctive and necessary film.
AJG: So you know that I was really taken with the editing work in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché. How’d you get involved in this amazing project?
XWD: I’d worked with the producer Rebecca Mark-Lawson (Becky) on a previous film, and Celeste and others involved in the documentary brought Becky on board to help get funding. From there, Becky got in touch with me and asked if I’d be up for creating a 20-minute teaser to see if we could get more people to support the project. Becky sent me PDFs of the book [Dayglo! The Poly Styrene Story] Celeste and Zoe had written. After I read the book, I thought, this is going to be an amazing documentary. I had a really good feeling about it.
AJG: What did that teaser look like?
XWD: It was essentially the New York section of the film. For me, that was the beginning of it all.
AJG: It must have been exciting to have access to that original footage and to think through all the ways of putting it together. For a reader who has no knowledge of the film editing process, can you tell me a bit about what it’s like?
XWD: The process will always be different from fiction to documentary, and then within documentary you’ve obviously got a huge range of editing styles.
AJG: Yeah, so observational documentaries (what I think a lot of people know as cinema verité), expository documentaries, poetic docs . . .
XWD: Exactly, and the type of documentary will often dictate how the footage has been shot. So with observational docs, the director often just goes out and shoots, and then the editor’s job is to find the story in the edit. But the Poly doc is different. With this film, there’s already a story there, and the voices that emerge from it are necessarily part of the story.
So let me take you back in time just a bit if I’m going to say more about the editing process on this specific film. When I came on board, Celeste had a vague script based on the book.
AJG: A lot of people are surprised to learn that documentaries have scripts, I think, so it’s great to highlight that here. Thinking about the book, the epistolary form – written letters – is so crucial. I assume those letters played a key role in the construction of the script?
XWD: Yeah, there was a lot of footage of Celeste reading those letters, but in effect speaking to the camera. So in a way, she’s at once reading the letters to Poly, but also engaging the viewer in a manner that’s distinct from the book. Beyond that footage, we had film of Celeste in various locations around the world, and interview clips with people who knew Poly and had been shaped by X-Ray Spex. So ultimately for me, the job was to pull all of those elements together – with the addition of carefully curated archival footage – to create a film with a narrative structure and a compelling story about Poly Styrene.
AJG: Viewers have remarked on the fact that there’s no “talking head” footage, but rather just voiceover narration.
XWD: Yes, although I can’t take any credit for that! It was a creative decision made before I came on board that was designed to keep the focus on Poly and Celeste, the two centres of the film. That decision to exclude “talking head” footage immerses the viewer in the film in a distinctive way.
AJG: It really allows the viewer to have greater access, in some ways, to Poly’s and Celeste’s subjectivities.
XWD: We really wanted to make sure that Poly didn’t get lost, especially since there was, obviously, no way of capturing contemporary footage of her. That was always going to be one of the big challenges of the film: how to keep Poly present.
Often in docs you have to find the story out of hundreds of hours of footage, but in this case it was more a case of balancing various threads: Poly’s story, Celeste’s story, analysis of Poly as an artist and lyricist, and making sure that these elements weave together as seamlessly as possible while speaking to each other. We wanted the film to feel like a fluid and natural conversation between the past and present.
AJG: For me, Poly’s presence is so pronounced despite the fact that she’s not physically here – especially in scenes with archival footage where Ruth Negga reads from Poly’s diary entries in the present tense.
XWD: When we all met together and heard Ruth Negga reading from Poly’s diary, I thought, this is fantastic. I also knew it was quite an original idea to use that kind of sound coupled with archival footage. I hadn’t seen many (or perhaps any!) documentaries that had brought together these elements, so it was instantly appealing to me. I knew I’d be doing something new and exciting with the editing that also spoke to the distinctiveness of Poly Styrene. I wouldn’t want to put together an extraordinary life narrative through editing without using some remarkable and unexpected forms, methods, and motifs.
AJG: I’d love to hear more about the selection of the archival footage.
XWD: In terms of the archival footage of Poly, so much of that was just golden from an editing perspective – an editor’s dream. I’m thinking particularly of the arena documentary footage from 1979. It was shot so beautifully, and again, it wasn’t a traditional kind of footage. It has a kind of ’70s vibe to it, but it’s so much more than that. It’s artistic, it’s authentic, and it’s very warm and very real. It’s not easy to capture that kind of sensibility. To me, it felt as though anyone could watch that footage and see Poly being herself – a glimpse into the real person.
When I was going through the various television interviews to select clips, I really loved how Poly was always herself. She never played up to the cameras or said what she thought the presenter wanted to hear. If the interviewer asked her a stupid question, she’d react appropriately by rolling her eyes or answering monosyllabically. And when she felt as though there was an expectation for her to act like someone else – the character Poly Styrene – she quit and took back control.
There was a lot of that archival footage of Poly, but with economic and legal constraints, I think we were only allowed to use a portion of it. It was a real challenge to decide which parts to select.
AJG: Can you say a little bit more about the challenges of using archival footage due to the enormous cost?
XWD: Some archival footage costs like five grand a minute, you know – it can be really, really pricey, especially when you’re working on a documentary project that’s on a strict budget. Other archival footage is less expensive. It all depends on where it’s stored and archived.
AJG: So, the limitations imposed by costs obviously require creative solutions for the editor, yeah?
XWD: Yeah. We used a lot of slightly abstract archival images that might not have had significance on their own, but when placed in the context of Ruth Negga’s voiceover narration or in the broader context of the scene, they did have meaning. For example, when Poly’s sister Hazel [Emmons] talks about growing up, I needed to find some generic footage of an estate in London that would give the viewer a sense of atmosphere. It got more complicated, though, in other parts of the film.
For example, it was a real challenge to depict the mental health issues. There’s archival footage, of course, of those sterile hospitals from the 1950s, but those images didn’t feel as though they represented Poly’s story. So, I had to consider other ways to recreate the atmosphere of that space and time without being too specific. What it results in is a lengthy process of going through hours and hours of archival footage to try to locate a three-second shot.
AJG: You’ve got to take something that has no actual connection to Poly Styrene and present it for the viewer in a way that makes it seem indelibly linked to her story.
XWD: Exactly, and sometimes it requires a process of “tricking” the viewer. For example, in terms of those New York scenes, we had a lot of footage – more than we could use. Yet we didn’t have any actual footage of Poly riding around New York City in a taxi or on a bus. So when we wanted to give a sense of her inner thoughts – letting the viewer get into Poly’s head, so to speak – as she saw all the commodification in Times Square, we needed to look to other footage. Here’s where the “trick” comes in. I used some footage from Poly looking out a car window – not even shot in New York and from a completely different scene – to try to bring that moment to life in a meaningful way. If the viewer watches the film and sees it as a way of understanding Poly, you know you’ve succeeded in the editing.
AJG: How about that archival material that gives the viewer access to Poly’s subjective thoughts and reflections? I’m thinking especially of the scene with the Bowie footage, followed by the Suffragettes.
XWD: One of the challenges of using archival footage, I need to point out, is that it’s not diverse. For Poly as a woman of colour, the idea that you might find archival footage that actually reflects what she’d have been thinking or feeling is … just not there. So there’s a need to turn to a different kind of archival material. For that scene you mention, I thought about Poly’s amazing imagination and incredible mind, and the way she talked about ideas as though they were almost dream-like fantasies of a different kind of existence.
I wanted to bring to life the kinds of surreal and abstract visions that would have been in her mind, coupled with images of past newsreels that might have found their way in there, too. That’s how I sought out that archival footage – looking for images that were at once steeped in nostalgic colours to keep that dreamy atmosphere, but that also brought to life the very real impressions that emerged from Poly’s complex thoughts and ideas.
AJG: Were there other scenes similar to that one that ultimately didn’t end up in the film?
XWD: Not a scene like that one, necessarily. But one thing that didn’t end up in the film is this: Celeste told me that Poly was really obsessed with Hollywood and the images of glamour that surrounded it. So before Poly went to New York, she was excited because she thought it would be an amazing and beautiful place, like a golden-era Hollywood where everything was shiny and classy. And then she got there, and the fact that it wasn’t like that, well … she felt overwhelmed.
This might seem obvious, but it was so important – essential – to have Celeste co-directing this film. She knew how to create a documentary that reflected Poly’s style in a way that was faithful to who she was as a person.
AJG: Do you think there are particular elements of the film that feel especially reflective of Poly in that way?
XWD: I think the film feels a bit like a collage or a tapestry, which speaks to Poly’s artwork, taking pieces of things and putting them together. It’s not perfect, but it reflects the experiences of a highly sensitive person, someone who absorbed everything around her and tried to make sense of it, to find some beauty in it.
Poly’s music and art was all about expressing herself and articulating her thoughts and feelings about the world around her. We hear from various contributors in the film that the media – and specifically a lot of men in the media – didn’t want women to express themselves in this way because it was dangerous to the status quo. Yet Poly paid little mind to what was expected of her. She knew she had interesting things to say, and she was going to express them!
AJG: Like a complex, revelatory pastiche.
XWD: Yeah, all of those elements produce a range of emotions, and that’s what we wanted to give the viewer.
I must say, editing a film is kind of like hosting a party. If you can get everything exactly right – the lighting, the food, the timing – you can curate this wonderful experience for people. If you can do that in a film, you can create an emotional experience for the audience that reflects the subject of the film. We wanted to make something that fans of Poly and X-Ray Spex would enjoy, but we also wanted a documentary that didn’t require advanced knowledge. That was a hard balance to get right.
AJG: The editing really does allow the viewer to have an emotional response to the film, largely through the recreation of Poly’s subjectivity in the ways we’ve discussed. By the way, I’m curious and realise I haven’t yet asked how you got started in documentary editing. Can you say a bit about how you came to this work?
XWD: If you want to go all the way back, I’m the product of a relationship between a director and editor – my mom was a documentary director and my dad a documentary editor. At first, they didn’t want me to get into film … I think they wanted me to have a more stable career. But after I graduated in 2010, I joined a group that was protesting economic injustices in the UK. I was living with my parents at the time, and someone in that group asked if anyone had access to cameras or editing equipment to document what we were doing. I hadn’t done any filming or editing at that point, but I had the access and said I’d love to do the work. I started filming protests and testimonials about the austerity cuts. This was the beginning for me as an editor, and I’ve discovered that it perfectly suits who I am – someone who is organized and structured but definitely a bit of a dreamer.
AJG: I kind of imagine Thelma Schoonmaker [Martin Scorsese’s long-time editor] like that, too.
XWD: There have been some incredible female editors in the film industry. You know, I read once that the reason there were so many women editors in Hollywood was because the job was seen like sewing – obviously it was on the actual film reels, but there was a process of cutting and stitching the physical film together. The men in those production companies thought it was a woman’s job since it was akin to this domestic task, so they put the women in the back room to do the editing without realising how creative and fundamental it was to the entire filmmaking process.
AJG: I love that. I also think it’s amazing, given the persistent sexism in the film industry, that I Am A Cliché is a project largely made by women about an incredible woman. And all those quotes from remarkable women musicians throughout the film talking about Poly – Ana da Silva, Gina Birch, Neneh Cherry, Kathleen Hanna, Pauline Black …
XWD: I know. It’s really wonderful. I don’t think you see many films where the majority of voices are women’s voices, and it’s necessary and timely. For that reason, and for so many others, the film feels different. And that’s what we wanted for Poly.