This week, award winning editor, Joby Gee, discusses the moral dilemma of showing people in their ‘true’ light.
I like the clip where she says, “He’s not an a***hole”…. can we just take the “not” out”. (From the Facebook page, Edit Suite Stories).
The most frequent question I am asked when I meet non-telly people is the “truth and honesty” one for want of a better phrase. Often, their first question is “why do you spend your days trying to contort people in the film your cutting to create some sort of twisted version of reality for our entertainment?”. Decent, hard working folk assume that it happens to almost everyone (including the Queen).
Well, recently the BBC interviewed me about editing (I babbled on) and I said all sorts of nonsense which hopefully someone can extract into two minutes and make me look like I know what I’m talking about. But it got me thinking; if I was a contributor in a documentary then what should I expect? What will those people who came round to film me do when they get into the edit suite? I’m starting to worry about all the things I’ve said on camera now. Oh my God, what have I done….?
“I don’t give a f**k about the truth, I want that woman to be the most hated person in Britain.”
When I start a job I take a kind of silent oath, an equivalent to “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Now that’s really just to remind me of my professional obligations but I know that I am kidding myself as I am going to break it as soon as I make my first edit.
I have then begun to create my own version of the truth. One that suits me, the director, the execs and, hopefully, the individuals in the film. But just because I am not telling the ‘truth’ doesn’t mean that the events depicted in whatever order aren’t an accurate version of what happened and the journey that the subjects went on.
They might even be (like one of the most manipulated programme on television, Big Brother) in chronological order. However, when I put them together what I’m trying to do is tell those individuals stories in the most entertaining, dramatic and fair way I can. And, of course, the fact that there are cameras there has already changed ‘reality’.
People behave differently around them even when they are hidden or used to them. It’s proven in physics. There is law called Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle, which says just by the act of observing a particle you change its behaviour in some way. It’s the same law with cameras and the people that they observe.
So what I am hoping to create is a kind of snapshot of their lives, similar to an impressionist’s portrait. What I want is for the subject of the film (painting) to say “Well, I don’t like what they have done to my hair and I’m not sure about the extra length on my arms and legs but I can recognize that that’s me there”. Basically, it’s a fair cop.
This film about Hiroshima. Could you find some Japanese who thought it was a good idea? Could you give it a happy ending?”
I can honestly say that I have never stitched up a contributor. In fact, it’s usually the opposite where someone might have said something so damaging to his or her reputation (a racist/sexist comment, an unsavory past, or just something really stupid) that you choose not to include it. Sometimes it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out which can be the most ‘untruthful’ part of the film. Perhaps I am guilty of breaking my oath again there but you can’t put everything in. In fact, you have to leave almost everything out.
Executive Producer to the Editor during heated exchange: “Me Michelangelo, you Dulux”
So, in order to be a ‘guardian’ of fair play, my relationship with the director is paramount. A large part of my role as editor is simply to get on with the director; if we are both thinking along the same lines about the structure and character development, then all is good. And my job is to back up the director during viewings even if I disagree with some of the choices that they have made (you can argue about them after the viewing).
I am quite realistic about my part in the process and the bottom line is that it’s their film and I am a hired gun. I am there to help them make the best film possible in the time allowed (or a little bit longer and, once or twice in a lifetime, a little bit less) and help them painlessly through to the other side.
Seasoned old VT editor to fresh-faced pain in the ass journalist. “Look if you don’t shut up I will give you exactly what you are asking for and then you will really be in the shit!”
So, if the viewings have gone well and the director and I are still talking while the composer has finally delivered the tracks we’ve been asking for then we can show it to the contributors. This is something that I (almost) always advise. Simply because I don’t think that it’s fair that they should see themselves on telly, usually in front of their friends, with no chance to mentally prepare. And you have no idea how they are going to react.
I once made a film about a lawyer (whose best friend was the Serbian warlord, Arkan, and who admitted that he would have defended Hitler at Nuremberg if he had the chance) where we accused him of having Mafia links, of dubious multi million dollar deals and of not even being a registered lawyer. And he loved it. It was, after all, true…..
After the first viewing of feature length doc, the Comm Ed helpfully says, “There are some good bits, and some bad bits. I’m just not sure which are which…”
Joby Gee is a BATFA and RTS award winning editor. He is currently working on 2 feature docs. The first is a 2 hour film for the US on the life and times of Henry Kissinger and the other is a documentary on the artist Ralph Steadman. The Ralph Steadman documentary is a unique insight into an artist at work, shot mainly on 35mm and featuring over 10 minutes of full animation.