WAR STORIES

 

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The scene: A small coastal town in North Africa; a deep sand beach, and across the street, a luxury hotel, complete with pool, outside lunch buffet, and ultra aggressive, dive bombing seagulls. They’d steal the croissants right from your hand.

But this isn’t mere idyll. We’re here to work intensely, helping creators to shape their projects during this, the last of three major workshops that drag films, kicking and screaming, from ideas to full fledged works in progress. This is project Greenhouse, and as contentious as it is for an Israeli organisation to be running an event designed to develop documentaries from the middle east and Arab Africa, once you get past the politics, you find that ultimately everyone just wants to tell their stories and make a difference, and help their peers to do the same. 16 Projects; Tunisian, Israeli, Arab Israeli, Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, Iranian, and all of them opening my eyes to stories I’d never otherwise hear about.

I’m one of 4 editors, brought in from across Europe to spend 3 days chained to our edit suites, working with 4 filmmakers apiece (actually I only got 3), swapping computers, software, operating systems, and of course stories.

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“You have how many hours of footage?”

“Aha. So it seemed like a good idea to put every shot in the same bin?”

“Undo Goddamit! Oh… it’s a PC. Pinky not thumb, pinky not thumb.”

“Match frame! MATCH FRAME! Why won’t the %*#@ match frame work?! Whoops, AVID, not Final Cut.”

“Where’s that great scene with the kid outside the tent? Oh… yeah, that’s from her project…”

I have a therapist, and I send her a special thank you across the cosmos every time I use the mindfulness exercise she gave me to help focus and heal. I was thanking her a lot.

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The scene: a luxury hotel suite, but the bed’s been hauled out in favor of a desk and makeshift viewing corner. It’s not the most comfortable chair in the world, but there’s a cactus shaded balcony overlooking the Atlantic. I’ve got a limited amount of time, a massive amount of footage, and a filmmaker who’s had her project dissected so many times that certainty is in rare supply.

We start with questions. Lots of questions. An abundance of questions, all geared towards reaching what they really want to say. I’ve found that my role is as much psychologist as editor. Hand-holder, friend, sometimes police (especially when time grows short). What’s actually happening in this village? What do you need to have happen to get your point across? If, in the trailer, you want this Bedouin woman to have more power in the film than she does in reality, will there be backlash that affects her, or your access? I know you love this scene, but how important is it really? Buckets of questions, often repeated. It’s the best way to lock in a creator’s convictions.

Of my three projects, the trickiest was by an orthodox Jewish woman, who grew up in New York and emigrated to Israel some years ago. I have to say it was awesome conversing with her, sounding like she just walked into a news vendor’s on Coney Island. This was the first of my two Bedouin stories, and the most challenging creator to work with. Mercurial, self-deprecating, prone to wild digressions, and passionate about her characters.

The first trailer she showed me had me convinced I knew the protagonist, described in detail in her proposal. … Not at all. A few hundred questions later I finally got out of her that it is in fact the “protagonist’s” sister whom she wants to build up into the lead character. It’s just too bad that in Bedouin culture it’s not so simple to either film women, or build them into leaders. But there’s enough footage of her to get by with, and if we show her as strong as possible, and diminish her opposition, then we can recreate an impression of her accomplishments. As always, that got us going on the “truth” question, and how honest it is to make it seem as though, for example, her character can walk freely around, when mostly she can’t. It’s damned honest, if 99.9% of Bedouin women can’t walk around at all, and she walks alone even once. It’s called context, and narratively speaking it’s a license to exaggerate.

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The scene: it’s 7:40pm, 20 minutes to the deadline for submitting trailers for tomorrow’s pitches. My third project, a very personal story (and Bedouin story number 2) has had me riveted since I firs read the proposal. The trailer she had didn’t do it justice, but that’s why we’re here.

We talked a lot. She smoked a lot. I thought a lot. And together we spent some extra time defining a strategy: what needed to be said in the pitch, what needed to be shown in the trailer, and how to put it all together. We did a paper cut of the trailer, deciding on a structure that would put all her elements in a good order before we made a single cut. I fought to keep certain shots that I thought were redundant out, she held her ground. She went to hunt for fresh material in her hard drives, Ai started assembling the structure.

So again, it’s 20 minutes to deadline, and it’s time to watch the 3 min piece and soak in the beauty. Hit play…

Fade to black, and we look at one another, each with an expression that says “what have we done?”

It’s 7:45.

She starts to say something twice but can’t get it out. I channel the adrenaline coursing through me towards the “t’aint” between my heart and my brain, squint, and cast a line out into the ether, asking for a solution.

She’s just about to finally get what she wanted to say out on the third try, when I get a flash and cut her off: “Let me try something!!”

It’s 7:50.

I hit play.

Fade to black.

We look at one another and smile. I’d taken a chunk of a shot I fought to toss away, and slammed it in the beginning. What I thought was scrap, was now the first shot of the trailer. The shot is raw, with harsh sound and lots of tension. And because it was there at the beginning, everything else in the trailer fell into place. We’d made a kick ass trailer together, that also helped her to prep her pitch. Our collective instincts were solid for the overall structure, her specific instinct in keeping that shot around was solid for the last minute save, and a moment of inspiration saved the day.

It was 8:00pm.

But a “deadline” in Morocco is exactly what you think it is: a suggestion. She took the trailer back to her room and worked some more on it overnight, then handed it in the following morning. The deadline became 8am instead. And the world didn’t end.

darkest

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At most workshops I don’t do any actual cutting. I’ll work with every project (anywhere between 15 and 25) and give them tips on what they can do to their trailers and pitches. Greenhouse was the first time I did limited projects with more involvement. I do love getting my fingers into lots of different pies, but I have to say, helping just a few of to actually bake is a hell of a rush. A schizophrenic one yes, but a rush all the same.

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