In praise of the undersung art of documentary editing

A great documentary is the result of great storytelling, which is always the result of great editing. So why is this element of film craft so often overlooked?

20 December 2019

By Nikki Baughan

The Cave (2019)

It’s a truism across the spectrum of cinema that while the director may be the holder of the vision, the editor is its sculptor. Yet while a film can live or die in the edit suite, it’s something that often goes unnoticed by audiences – and that’s particularly so with documentary, where films are more often judged for their subject than their craft. They are also largely told without the distraction of big name stars or special effects, and so their success hangs on their ability to tell a fascinating story.

Working in collaboration with the director, or sometimes doing both jobs, it’s the editor’s responsibility to wrangle hundreds of hours of raw footage into a film that’s not only coherent but also hits that sweet spot of being both entertaining and informative. “When you’re a documentary film editor, you’re given a bunch of material and you have to try and find a line, a plot, a structure, and pull out people’s characters,” noted former documentary editor and longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, where she received a lifetime honour.

Documentary editors have, of course, been essential to the genre since its earliest days but, with the non-fiction film enjoying a new popularity during the streaming era, the last couple of years have produced some truly masterful examples of the craft at work. Here we celebrate 10 recent standouts.

The Cave (2019)

Editors: Denniz Gol Bertelsen, Per K. Kirkegaard
Director: Feras Fayyad

For his follow-up to Oscar-nominated documentary Last Men in Aleppo (2017), filmmaker Feras Fayyad returns to Syria to explore life in ‘The Cave’, an underground hospital in the outskirts of besieged Damascus.

“Feras wanted the film to be told in a cinematic observational way without any interviews,” says editor Per K. Kirkegaard, who worked for a year on the film with fellow editor Denniz Gol Bertelsen. “It was important for him to centre the film around the female Dr Amani, and her fight to be leader of the hospital even though she got criticised by the male-dominated society. It was also important that we documented the war crime that was going on in Syria, as well as the humanity and courage of the staff.”

To achieve this, Kirkegaard and Bertelsen were faced with over 500 hours of footage. “We asked Feras to write us a short description of 20 scenes that he saw as potential in the finished film,” explains Kirkegaard. “We could then edit those scenes quite quickly, and have a specific talk about contents and editing style. This became the guideline when we were looking for new scenes; we knew which characters and situations we needed and, at the same time, we could develop the dramaturgy.”

One of The Cave’s most powerful sequences comes when a chemical attack brings an influx of terrified patients; brisk edits capture the maelstrom of fear and grief, while close-ups of stricken individuals underscores the individual cost of war. For the filmmakers, however, there was also resonance to be found in the quieter moments. “We were very much aware that we couldn’t only show the war crimes without giving the audience a break,” says Kirkegaard. “So it was important to have the daily life scenes, like Dr Amani’s birthday, Nurse Samaher making food for the staff or Dr Salim listening to classical music.”

For Kirkegaard, the process of editing a documentary is similar to that of editing a feature, although the lack of a script means that “in feature editing, you are rewriting the film; in documentaries you are really writing the film,” he says.

“I don’t believe there is any objective truth in a documentary film,” he continues. “It will always be seen through the point of view of the director; a kind of interpretation of a given reality. That is how it should be. It’s important that the director have a strong need to tell a story. In The Cave, we tried to be as honest and humble in the editing as we could. We need the audience to understand that the horror we show them is not a construction. We want to give the people of Syria a voice.”

Apollo 11 (2019)

Editor-director: Todd Douglas Miller

With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there has been a spate of celebratory films; David Fairhead’s Armstrong, edited by Paul Holland, is another standout. With Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller puts a fresh spin on this landmark event, seamlessly stitching together archive visual and audio footage in chronological order to immerse the viewer in that historic day.

Miller’s decisions on what to include, and how to put it all together, are both factually and emotionally profound. Amid the many awe-inspiring space shots, the most powerful moment proves to be an earthbound scene in which the astronauts are quietly donning their spacesuits, trepidation and responsibility etched on their faces. Framed on either side by the cacophony of scientific preparation, it underscores the fundamental humanity of the mission – and just how much there was at stake.

Honeyland (2019)

Editor: Atanas Georgiev
Directors: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

With debut directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov taking an observational approach to their film about Hatidze, Macedonia’s last remaining wild honey-bee farmer, Atanas Georgiev’s sensitive edit is crucial to brokering a relationship between film and viewer. Georgiev is not afraid to breach that intimacy, however, cutting contemplative scenes of Hatidze with the frantic tumult of new neighbours, whose arrival turns life upside down. Images of the family’s patriarch Huseein running from the stings of his hastily acquired bees are a striking contrast to those of Hatidze sitting calmly in clouds of the insects; just one example of Georgiev’s lyrical approach.

Hale County, This Morning This Evening (2018)

Editor-director: RaMell Ross

A remarkable debut from director-editor RaMell Ross, Hale County, This Morning This Evening is so poetic that its audience doesn’t so much witness life in the Alabama Black Belt community, as experience it. Ross condenses five years of footage into less than 80 minutes but never rushes in his observations. Instead his edits masterfully employ contrasting speeds; the passage of time is shown by the swift changing of seasons, while other cuts linger long on insects meandering on the ground or slow drives down familiar streets. Life is made up of such moments, both large and small, and Ross captures them all.

Cold Case Hammarskjold (2019)

Editor: Nicolás Nørgaard Staffolani
Director: Mads Brugger

An enthralling example of a documentary turning on itself, Cold Case Hammarskjold is a knotty investigation into the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskkjold. As the film sheds its skin with each shocking discovery, editor Nicolás Nørgaard Staffolani keeps a steady hand, allowing the film to go off the beaten path without ever getting hopelessly lost. There are no firm conclusions here, but one thing is certain: Staffolani’s ability to ensure that Mads Brugger’s self-conscious, playful approach doesn’t overwhelm this story is one of the year’s best editing feats.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018)

Editor-director: Rob Garver

Individual portraits are a documentary mainstay and Rob Garver’s is a lovely example of how a well-crafted edit can make a film chime with both subject and audience. Ostensibly a chronological march through the life and work of influential film critic Pauline Kael, Garver’s film cleverly weaves relevant scenes from classic movies through the traditional talking head and archive interviews, underscoring the beats of Kael’s narrative – and her points about misogyny and women in the workplace – and her overwhelming passion for cinema of all kinds. 

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

Editor: Michael Harte
Director: Tim Wardle

The boom of streaming has seen a rise in non-fiction serials like Making a Murderer (2015-18) and The Staircase (2004-18), which keep viewers guessing from episode to episode. The BAFTA-nominated Three Identical Strangers does the same within its 96-minute running time, editor Michael Harte teasing out this story of three New York men who discover that they are triplets separated at birth. As this personal story widens out into an exposé of national corruption, key to Harte’s approach is the clever manipulation of allegiances, with interviewees become more and less trustworthy as each discovery is revealed.

Midnight Traveller (2019)

Editor: Emelie Mahdavian
Director: Hassan Fazili

Shot by filmmaker Hassan Fazili on iPhones over two years as he, his wife and two young daughters fled Afghanistan and journeyed across Europe in search of asylum, Midnight Traveller has tremendous power because of the immediacy of its home-movie style. Yet, almost counterintuitively, the work of editor Emelie Mahdavian is key. She cut the film as it was being made, stitching together the raw footage as fast as Fazili could get it to her, and this urgency is reflected in the edit. She also uses montages – of happier, playful moments, as well as darker times – and repeated languorous shots of the sky to express that, despite their dire situation, the family’s charming dynamic and hope for the future endures.

Maiden (2018)

Editor: Katie Bryer
Director: Alex Holmes

Sportsmanship seems tailor-made for documentary exploration; the highs and lows of physical endeavour being obvious narrative beats. The skill, however, comes in placing these stories in a wider context, without detracting from the achievements on screen. Editor Katie Bryer cuts Maiden in such a way, celebrating yacht skipper Tracy Edwards and the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round The World Race in 1989, while also highlighting the atmosphere of open misogyny that surrounded them. Footage of the team wrestling with the ocean and being cheered into port are effectively contrasted with archive interviews about their supposed failings, making clear the toxic social waters in which Edwards was defiantly raising her sail.

One Child Nation (2019)

Editor: Nanfu Wang
Directors: Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

A remarkable example of a film that distills sweeping social and political themes through an intensely personal lens, Nanfu Wang focuses on her own family to explore the devastation of China’s long-standing one child policy.

Even as she uncovers the dark truths of her own history, Wang maintains a filmmaker’s eye, putting forward a tight, confident edit that allows the facts of the matter to come to the fore. She expertly employs well-timed cutaways to intimidating state-written children’s songs and televised propaganda and, realising that a picture speaks a thousand words, offers lingering cuts on difficult moments: one-child (and, now, two-child) laws scrawled on a wall, the devastating work of artist Peng Wang, which commemorates the unwanted babies discovered in the country’s rubbish dumps.

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