Analysing the power structures of a monastery in a documentary edited at a post-house in Soho.
At Belmont Abbey in Hereford, Father Alex creates a tempera with egg yolk to bind together the pigment in his latest icon, a gold leaf painting of Archangel Michael. Meanwhile, Brother Bernard shuffles past an unnamed monk polishing the candelabras, he is on his way to finish making a chain of rosary beads used for prayer. One monk plays with the dog while the other trims the hedges.
The Benedictine Monastery appeared in the third episode of the 2017 docuseries Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery. The episode follows the monks at the abbey as they go about their day, shot slow-TV style. The camera lingers on scenes of quiet prayer, icon painting, and the daily rituals and routines of the monastery’s inhabitants, connected by shots of monks slowly walking through corridors. It’s all very contemplative, and the BBC describes the series as going ‘in search of inner peace’, providing ‘a welcome retreat from the hectic pace of our daily lives’.
Yet the rhythm is strikingly familiar. Whilst a day in the monastery invites quiet contemplation, there is still much work to be done. Floors are swept and hedges trimmed by background monks who play second fiddle to their named counterparts: Fathers and Brothers who get to practice loftier rituals. Whether or not this hierarchy is established by the monastery or the editing is unclear, however still produced.
Perhaps a clue to the power structure’s production lies in its post-production.
Retreat was edited at a post-house in Soho. An MCR tech team took the hours of footage filmed for the programme and painstakingly ingested it into their editing system, ready for an editor to cut together in a room attended to and set up by post-production runners. This delegation of work frees up the editor to focus on producing content for the network, allowing for smooth workflow while the house and editing system is accounted for, and tea breaks and lunch is taken care of.
So who takes care of lunch at Belmont Abbey? From the perspective of the editor, it doesn’t matter. Another monk who doesn’t have a name, appears, setting the plates and dishing out food to visitors, then disappears, cut from view. Edit decisions are made about who is the most important in the room. Brother Bernard delivers a sermon on the importance of ritualised prayer while the visitors eat. He tells us to ‘banish all human preoccupations‘, to ‘repeat [our] prayer at brief intervals’, and to ‘make our prayer short’ so as not to let our mind wander, allowing ‘the devil [to] trip us up’.
The runner, too, lives a ritualised life in the post-house. Runs are made at the top of every hour and repeat until the end of the day. The runner pops their head in the door of each edit suite and asks ‘Do you want anything?’, attending to each request and complaint, cleaning up their mess and others’ mess as they go. These hourly runs must be kept as a priority, so as not to fall behind the editor’s appetite, thirst, or mess that is made in the bathrooms and kitchens of the post-house as the day draws on. Like a constant prayer, the needs of the house sit in the back of a runner’s mind. The job requires a sharpness, a strong sense of routine. To let the mind wander risks missing an outstanding task, an unwashed cup, or an undelivered hard drive, lost in the chaos.
Many runners are early on in their careers, hoping to one day work in the positions they currently facilitate. It’s a familiar rite embedded in the work culture of TV & Film: do your time at the bottom and work your way up – with each rung on the ladder facilitating the next. Editors work for their edit producers, and the edit producers work for their producers, and so on.
As with the lunch scene in the monastery, the structure seems necessary and incidental. Someone needs to serve the plates and someone needs to make the food. But decisions have been made about who gets to do what.
The post-house structure ultimately serves the interests of the network, where it is cheaper and more time-efficient to delegate and outsource work at each stage of production, down to the person who makes the tea. Suppose a production company needs to edit three 60-minute episodes of television on a budget. In that case, they won’t spend money on runners and MCR when they can pay a post-house to provide edit facilities, technical assistance, and refreshments for a set price. This way, the production only has to employ their crew to make the show, not to sort out their lunch.
The hierarchies and working styles established in post-production appear to borrow a lot from the Benedictine vocation. According to the Belmont Abbey website, to become a monk, you start as a postulant.
For 9 months, you will live and work at the monastery under the guidance of the ‘Novice Master’, a monk who is appointed to train prospective and novitiate monks. Your first 9 months in the monastery are a period of discernment, a chance for yourself and the community to get to know each other. You will engage in the monastery’s liturgy, but also the balance of prayer and labour Benedictine Monks call Ora et labora.
In the Rule of Saint Benedict, contemplation and active work must balance each other out, labour being just as important as prayer. Without labour, prayer becomes too drawn out, and risks being ‘inattentive [to God]’, to quote Brother Bernard. Active work in Benedictine monasteries not only forms a part of religious rituals but also has practical application in mobilising the community to do necessary upkeep.
After 9 months, you become a novitiate, a novice monk who begins studying sacred scriptures while you continue your day-to-day tasks. After a year as a novitiate, you may take temporary vows to become a juniorate monk, engaging in the wider works of the community and taking on pastoral roles. After 3 years you may commit yourself to lifelong monastic life by making ‘Solemn Vows’. It is then you become a member of the Chapter, and have ‘the right and duty to discuss and vote on issues concerning the community.’
Similarly, those wishing to join the post-house are expected to work as a runner for 9 months. In their postulancy, the runners get to know the rituals of the post-house and the people that inhabit it. They have their own novice master, the head runner, who is undergoing training to join MCR. At this point in their careers, runners might find time in between runs to shadow other editors and MCR staff. They learn the technical aspects and general workflow of post-production: ingest, conform, and sync-maps, the sacred scriptures of post.
Once a runner joins MCR, they will begin to take on greater responsibilities, preparing files for editors and TV packages for the network. As they gain experience in MCR, they learn the technical expertise and workflow needed to become an online editor or branch out into other editing roles. MCR staff typically spend 3 years working in the role before they make their ‘Solemn Vows’ to the industry and move into the edit suites they used to serve drinks to.
But a day in the monastery can only tell us so much of a monk’s life. Retreat, unlike the roadmap laid out on the Belmont Abbey website, is bound by its timescale, which takes place all within a day. Progression only comes in the form of a flash forward to the completion of an icon Father Alex is working on, but even 10 days later, not much has changed. The routines of the monastery and the post-house are steadfast. While an individual may move through the ranks, the structure remains intact, becoming the most visible part of the composition.
Our futures in this industry are predicated on the promise of the day-to-day work ordained by our superiors. While the monk’s life is aimed at God, the runner chases after the promotion that will gain them entry into the industry. In both cases, hard work and tests of spiritual strength and determination are endured for their implied meaning. This is why many low-paid secular jobs feel religious. The work nowhere near justifies the pay, but the promise of a bright future is enough to spur someone through hell.
Many runners never make it to those hallowed edit suites, burning out before they can get there. Their work will have been enough to stoke the flames of the post-house for a few months, and a new runner will take their place, believing in the dream they once held dear.
But runners aren’t the only ones feeling the burn. Eroded workers’ rights and stretched-thin budgets have created a culture of work where people give their lives for little in return. People are happy to find a job, let alone be paid fairly for one.
Under capitalism, all work has become devotional. We give everything in the hopes we may be able to one day do something we love. We hope our jobs will come to support our loved ones and nourish us. But work has transmuted our desires into raw effort with no reward. We have to question what these efforts currently benefit. What is the day-to-day reality of work? It is only when we pull apart the promises of our work that we can begin to see what devotion might truly be worth.