“Documentary is the fiction of reality”: Behind the Scenes of the Doc Edit and Story Lab

recommended image width: 1088px

Robert Greene (center) at the Documentary Edit and Story Lab at Sundance Resort. ©Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

I came to the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab with a mix of emotions. I’d proudly accepted a creative advisor role, joining an esteemed group that included Laura Poitras, Jonathan Oppenheim, Joelle Alexis, Nels Bangerter, and Lillian Benson, but remained skeptical of what I thought might be a “too many cooks in the kitchen” approach to editing documentaries. Maybe I was intimidated or wondering what I could offer, or maybe I was afraid of how the lab process might affect my semi-solitary preferences for editing my own films. Outside the bubble of filmmaking worries, we were all still reeling from a week of horror that included the tragedies of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Dallas (not to mention the passing of cinematic hero Abbas Kiarostami), so heading to a privileged oasis like the Sundance Resort seemed almost surreal. After a week of effort and camaraderie, however, I had new insights into what it takes to make meaningful work.

Setting the Stage

In our initial hours together we gathered in the non-descript Wasatch cabin for an opening day conversation. We pulled our chairs into a circle – the traditional shape of group therapy – and after characteristically grounded-yet-wise words from Documentary Film Program Director Tabitha Jackson and general introductions, the conversation evolved (devolved?) into a lively and personal dialogue about the nature of documentary truth. Lillian recapped the strict journalistic practices employed while editing Eyes on the Prize and Laura whispered the word “violent” when describing the relationship that often develops between documentarian and subject. Joelle movingly recounted a story where she flatly refused to use a particular shot out of context for ethical reasons and Jonathan delivered his soft-spoken harangue against the mere concept of “documentary truth.” Each personal take on the most essential questions of documentary making reverberated around the circle until almost everyone had weighed in, often with force and conviction. It was clear: no one had come to that room to play around.

Later our conversations spilled over to the Owl Bar where we soon found ourselves in the company of a massive, very wealthy wedding party from Alabama, a group so big the resort crew had to build an extra deck on the dining hall to accommodate them. With our documentary gang still lingering at the bar it became a slightly absurd mix of big movie ideas and sparkly party dresses, which created a situation that somehow seemed foretelling. Vigorous discussions about things like “truth” can be intoxicating (and even exhausting) but it was clear that this week would bring surprises if we could open ourselves up to them. Five filmmaking teams had come to the mountain looking for some hard-fought wisdom, but as I pushed my way through the pack of wedding guests to pay my bar tab, I realized it might be best to let go of expectations.

Jonathan Oppenheim and Nels Bangerter. © Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz
Jonathan Oppenheim and Nels Bangerter. © Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz

Awkward Teenager Phase

It’s a strangely emotional experience watching four rough cuts in a row, which is what we did on our first full day together. For me, a filmmaker who finds this stage to be almost unbearably delicate, it felt a bit like being someone sensitive to alcohol attending a drinking convention. The rough cut is an awkward teenager – you can see the person it might become, but there’s such a long way for them to go, and that path to becoming a grown up is often painful and full of embarrassment and failure. As Jonathan Oppenheim is fond of saying, the key is to “fail upward.” The process went like this: each filmmaking team introduced their film, we watched it, then gathered back at the circle to discuss what we thought, leaning on first impressions over offering solutions. As if being forced to watch a group of insecure teenagers at a middle school dance, I spent much of the day on the verge of tears.

My skepticism of the hyper-collaborative nature of the labs added to the pangs. I happen to be a guy with a ton of opinions and I quite love the process of helping others find their films, but hearing everyone chime in with often very disparate opinions was almost physically painful at the start. The first film we discussed, Survivors (working title), which follows several characters during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, had screened in a particularly fragile state. Not only were the two Sierra Leonean co-directors, Arthur Pratt and Lansana “Barmmy Boy” Mansaray, sadly denied visas to attend the labs, but also the film – which has almost endless cinematic potential – wasn’t even to the assembly stage. American co-directors Anna Fitch and Banker White were submitting their raw, incredibly rich material to the room and I found it nearly unbearable. What happens if they take the wrong advice and run with it? What if my advice was the wrong advice? Could I bear the responsibility? Later, as we advisors (and first ever Writer-in-Residence Eric Hynes) huddled around Banker’s cell phone (placed in a fishbowl to help magnify the volume) with Arthur and Barmmy on speaker from Sierra Leone – a day after they faced major flooding which made using Skype impossible – the consequences of why we’d come to the mountain were made clear.

As the day progressed, my concern over the susceptibility of the projects to the perils of “group thinking” began to be assuaged by the sheer force of intelligence in the circle. I was invigorated by the early rough cut of Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan’s Whose Streets, which follows multiple characters in the Ferguson area after the killing of African American teenager Michael Brown and traces the birth of a movement, and inspired by the guidance the filmmakers received in the room. A film with such a powerful subject can often get pigeonholed as an “issue film,” but the room urged the directors and their editor Christopher McNabb to follow their most humanizing cinematic instincts. Adriana Loeff and Claudia Abend’s La Flor de la Vida, which follows an octogenarian former couple as part of a bigger chorus of witty and wise 80-year-olds from Uruguay, was at such a confident stage that you could easily be tricked into not giving productive notes, but the group pushed and prodded, setting Adriana (who was present while her filmmaking partner Claudia was back home giving birth) and her contributing editor Carlos Rojas Felice off on a good path for the week.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Brea’s Canary in a Coal Mine (working title), which chronicles the filmmaker’s personal battles with the criminally misunderstood and debilitating illness commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, was on such solid rough cut ground that many of the first comments were merely encouragement. As we went around the room (rightfully) patting Jen and her editor Kim Roberts on the back for a job well done, I had a growing sense of unease. Were they getting a pass because of how powerful and personal the subject was? The cut was in a great place but it felt a little pat and conventional at times – but somehow I lacked the courage to speak up, out of passivity or maybe because I had been so thoroughly moved by the material. Then Laura Poitras raised her hand and challenged Jen and Kim to go deeper into the personal, expressive aspects of the story, which opened up a floodgate of good ideas that seemed to leave the filmmakers both dizzy and exhilarated. And with that unexpected and incredibly inspiring escalation, the last embers of my skepticism were stomped out, and off we went toward a week of meaningful work.

Building Launch Pads

The beginning of a film is the place where you spend a few precious minutes training your viewer on how to watch your movie. Whose voice is guiding the story? How will characters be introduced? How will the “language” of the film – the pace, tone, music and sense of place – be established? The opening moments educate our viewers on how the rest will play out ("This is the language this film is speaking and this is why you should trust me," as Laura put it), so these launch pads need to be mindfully constructed. Each advisor had a different opinion about when in the editing process is the best time to labor over the beginning, but we all agreed on its unique importance. For two of the projects, this became the biggest challenge of the week.

The rough cut of Whose Streets had a functionally workable opening, but when we got into the editing rooms, it turned out Sabaah, Damon, and Christopher had bigger ambitions of introducing voices from the community without turning the film into a talking heads piece. The challenge became how to initially present this chorus of minor characters – while hinting at broader issues of media representation that they hope to grapple with – without the film devolving into a conventional mess. Meanwhile the team behind Survivors – whose main challenges were how to establish the Sierra Leonean filmmakers as voices and how to show life before the Ebola outbreak – were locked in what felt like a desperate battle with their opening. By week’s end, we’d watched at least six permutations of their beginning, each with its own positives and negatives. Working on one section of a film can drive you a bit mad, but by the final presentations both teams had struck gold – or had at least a good enough beginning to move on.

Lillian Benson, Laura Poitras, Nels Bangerter, Robert Greene, Jonathan Oppenheim, Joelle Alexis. © Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson
Lillian Benson, Laura Poitras, Nels Bangerter, Robert Greene, Jonathan Oppenheim, Joelle Alexis. © Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson

Unearthing Treasures

The main challenge for Adriana of La Flor de la Vida was letting go of some of her more entrenched notions about how her material was working and look at her footage in a fresh way. One scene which had been left out of the rough cut gained a sort of mythical quality among the group, a kind of “fix” we all hoped might magically solve some of the film’s (relatively minor) last act issues – if only Adriana and Carlos could make it work in the edit. This complex relationship with golden material is pretty common. Sometimes major scenes, which Jonathan refers to as “nodal,” are so transformative that they need to be handled especially delicately. Sometimes we become afraid of their volatility and potential impact and we bury them, as Adriana and her co-director had seemingly done. Our job was to get the team to see the potential of the scene. Sometimes you need to “kill your babies,” as the cliché about editing goes, but sometimes your babies might save you. Meanwhile, the treasures unearthed by Jen and Kim (with contributing editor Sarah Cannon) of Canary in a Coal Mine were another matter entirely. The team took our challenge of moving towards the expressive and artful (while heeding Nels’ smart advice to not unnecessarily bury the political) and ran with it. The sheer transformation over the week of Canary from a work of relatively straightforward storytelling to something of greater cinematic ambition was truly wonderful.

Filmmaking as Personal Journey

In addition to the main fellows, Sundance invited RaMell Ross and his collaborator Maya Krinsky to show their experimental and deeply personal Idiom (Hale County, this Morning, this Evening), which felt like a kind of satisfying payoff and ante-upper to many of the questions about representation and form that swirled during the week. As the days winded on, Eric and the advisors were asked to give presentations about our own work, which ended up providing some of the most insightful moments of the week. Laura talked about working with exposition, which she called “the hardest thing,” and revealed how she often starts with a “politically correct” angle on a story but allows herself to follow events as they unfold, which often leads to more complex, contradictory conclusions. She revealed some of the more ethically challenging parts of her process (including showing and discussing the infamous scene from The Oath where Salim Hamdan asks her to delete footage from the previous day, an illuminating talk made all the more revelatory by the presence of Jonathan, who edited the film and met Laura at the labs) and she spoke eloquently about the role of subjects in our work. "The risks we take don't compare to the risks of the people who agree to be filmed," she said forcefully.

The other presentations offered equally relevant insights: Joelle showed how she crucially built in moments for minor characters in A Film Unfinished and Lillian screened two pieces of work in different styles and went through her editing process. Nels used clips from video games and TV to make the case that documentary can be more interactive. Eric shared his personal journey as an artist/journalist and compared the writers working in the New Journalism mode of the 1960’s and 70’s with the formally ambitious documentarians of today, which opened up a wider discussion on how other art forms influence our work. For my part, I dutifully embarrassed myself by showing some of my student films, which are clearly hatched from the same brain as Kate Plays Christine, in an effort to reveal that it sometimes works when we follow our “filmmaker ids.”

Jonathan’s words were particularly meaningful to me and provided a real high point in a week full of them. I’d come to the mountain full of doubts and skepticism and, after countless moments of cinematic discovery and genuinely felt camaraderie, I left with the zeal of a convert. The word “community” can be nauseating, but it’s an absolutely necessary element of documentary filmmaking, where the rewards for the work are often elusive or, at best, fleetingly ephemeral. The presence of Jonathan Oppenheim, a true hero of mine who has chosen to come to the labs several times, should have clued me in more quickly to the magic of the place, but when he sat down and started his presentation it all became clear. In his unmistakable whispered rasp, he started by saying, “Notes to myself,” and followed with a list of carefully considered maxims that I will now simply copy/paste as the rightful testament to our amazing week on the mountain:

Build a world that has dimension and inevitability. Create terms that make you feel contained in that world, unassailable.

You’re working with the fragments that came into being on a shoot. The fragment came into being with will and intent, but there is no blueprint for building with them.

To re-imagine and reconstitute a human being from footage. That intention is the beginning of finding a basis for structure.

Your feelings about your subject, love or hate, are your true raw material.

The aim is to experience. Nothing else will do. Aliveness is the guide. This makes structure a moving target which has to be arrived at differently for every film.

I love the power of obliqueness in non-fiction film.

Interview is behavior. If it only functions as information it shouldn’t be used.

Documentary is the fiction of reality.

Sometimes there are scenes that must be in the film, do or die. Call them nodal scenes. You build the film so they can be deeply felt. This shapes structure.

Everything in a film must be felt so a web of contexts need to be created. A great scene dies in front of your eyes without the right context.

Context is God, intention is everything.


Lead photo:

Robert Greene (center) at the Documentary Edit and Story Lab at Sundance Resort. ©Sundance Institute | Brandon Cruz