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Keith Reamer on Editing Arabic in Amreeka

January 11, 2009 | By

There are always challenges when editing independent films. Tight budgets and shortened schedules are to be expected, but editing in a foreign language is not usually part of the job description.
Editor Keith Reamer was undaunted by that task when he was asked to cut Amreeka, a timely, humorous and touching story that invites the viewer into the life, family and culture of a Palestinian woman given the chance to immigrate to the United States from the West Bank. The Arabic-language film premiered in the Dramatic Competition of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Reamer’s past achievements included cutting Three Seasons in Vietnamese, Shadow Magic in Mandarin Chinese, as well as the 2006 Sundance Festival award-winning feature Stephanie Daley (in English).
Reamer’s agent had given him writer/director Cherien Dabis’ screenplay for Amreeka and he loved it. “The humanity and the humor really came out on the page,” says the editor.
Nevertheless, with well over half the film in Arabic, a lot of focus was required to match each line of on-screen dialog with the corresponding English text in the script. “Even though it was tricky, it was not completely intimidating,” says Reamer. “Obviously there’s no translator in the room, so we use the script notes as a departure point for figuring out where we are in a scene.” Using the Avid, Reamer would throw locators at the start of every line in the dailies and number them to correspond to every line on the page. Then a cut-by-numbers approach was applied to edit the Arabic lines, while following the English script. “I was able to find my way around in the more densely Arabic scenes with ease and quickly figure out where I was,” he says. “But it required a little extra planning at the top.”
Once past the logistics imposed by the language, Reamer shares, “It freed me to review the performances the way I would review performances in English. You’re listening to the actors, watching them, trying to garner the special moments. A performance that rings true, rings true in any language. There is definitely a level of intuition, especially when looking at material in a foreign language, of following instincts and looking for that spark and invention in a performance that makes you feel like something is there.”
Another additional “wrinkle” in editorial was handling all the subtitles—a rather large task to tackle. Reamer, and his assistant Eddie Nichols, wanted to create the subtitles so they would import easily into the online. “Of course when you start getting hundreds of subtitles per reel, it makes the edit clumsier because you have more layers to keep in sync, or if you replace shots you have to retitle the new material,” says Reamer. “It slows things down, so we tried to cut without them for as long as we could.”
The team usually worked on the subtitles in the evening while eating dinner. They would pull up a reel on the Avid, Reamer would spot each line with time code, while Nichols took notes on a laptop. Although they followed the script, the director, who was fluid in Arabic, would retranslate the lines. “A lot of times the actors would put their own spin on things. Cherien would say, ‘Yes that is what they’re saying, but what they’re really saying is this, which is much funnier.’ It was kind of the last rewrite of the script,” says Reamer.
After each reel was finished, Nichols would take the spotting notes and turn them into subtitles at night. The subtitles were a constant work-in-progress, with the director frequently making adjustments. “It was a very fluid process,” Reamer admits. “You’ve seen foreign films where there is a stiltedness to the subtitles. We didn’t want that. We wanted the titles to be just as funny, inventive and warm as the cast, to really reflect all of the nuances of the performances and not feel like a mere translation.”
Reamer credits Avid’s titling tool for making a cumbersome chore manageable, allowing his assistant to continually update, while providing a solid template for the online. “They could take our titles and load right in,” he says. “It saved a lot of time and money in the online process.”
The film was shot entirely hand-held in super 16 anamorphic. Reamer feels that the scope makes the picture seem like a bigger film and that the size of the frame allows for more “sophisticated imagery.” Cutting in scope also changes the rhythm of the cuts a bit, he says. “Because of the vertical compression and the added width, it may be a bit more unforgiving of over-editing or sloppy-ish continuity, but it really rewards careful editorial with an elegant and focused approach. Any problems can be addressed simply by care and awareness of the frame.”
The production started shooting in May. The majority of the film was shot in Winnipeg, Canada with the last quarter of the schedule shooting in Ramallah, in Palestine’s West Bank. Editor Misako Shimizu set up the project and assisted during the early part of production. After a short hiatus Nichols took her place from June to October thru all the final deliveries. Reamer was never more than a day to a day and a half behind camera. He worked with the director through the summer and locked the film mid-September—in total about 13 weeks of editing.
Cinematographer Tobias Datum used an Arri 416 with Zeiss lenses, a Canon zoom and Kodak stocks: 7219, 7229 and 7217. The film was cut in Manhattan on an Avid Adrenaline at Radical Avid, run by editor David Dolkins. Reamer, who began his career cutting on film, prefers Avid to other methods and systems for editing. “I find the Avid a much more intuitive program,” he says.
DV cam dailies for editing were transferred at Technicolor in Toronto with Jeremy Kay as lab contact. Film from the West Bank shoot was processed at a 16-millimeter facility in Tel Aviv, before shipping to Toronto. Technicolor scanned the film in Spirit 2K and onlined the up-rezed footage in Autodesk’s Smoke. The digital intermediate was color corrected in Luster before filming out to 35mm for screening.
“Amreeka is such a heartfelt film,” shares Reamer. “In the best sense of the word, it is a handmade film—carefully crafted, making sure every detail represents the experience of the characters and the story.”
He also believes the film is an important one to be seen, especially with what is going on in the world right now and that it’s his responsibility to tell the story of these characters. “It’s a wonderful responsibility, to step into somebody else’s world, into another culture, and to understand that world just a little bit.”

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