The most recent Sundance Film Festival formally acknowledges the editor’s collaboration in shaping independent film with the addition of a new Jury Award, presented to the editor of a documentary in domestic competition.The Documentary Editing Prize this year was awarded to Billy McMillan, Fiona Otway and James Longley for Iraq in Fragments. (Longley also captured the Documentary Directing and Cinematography awards.) Set against war, occupation and ethnic tensions, the film illuminates the realities of contemporary Iraq. It was shot from February 2003 to April 2005 as the situation in Iraq descended into ethnic rivalry and insurgency. Nevertheless, the film is not a war documentary, but rather tells Iraqi stories in three chapters roughly cut along lines that define common perceptions of Iraq as Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.While in Iraq, Longley would film during the day. In the evenings he began to translate the material and edit it on an Apple laptop. McMillan joined the project in March, 2005 after producer John Sinno saw some of his other work. A Sundance postproduction grant provided funds to complete the project.In forming the complex material into a coherent storyline, McMillan says they followed the philosophy “to cut ahead of the audience.” At first the film was in four acts with minor stories weaving in and out, but eventually it evolved into three acts that each expressed a different cultural point of view. The story was structured from over 300 hours of tape without the use of voiceover narration. The 1,600 pages of typed, translated and time-coded transcripts were used to script the film and create a narrative from the dialog of the featured Iraqis. Words could be hyper-texted to access certain subject matter such as religion, war and the Americans.According to McMillan, one of the biggest challenges to editing was working with footage that was entirely in Arabic or Kurdish because the transcripts did not always reflect what was on the film. A second difficulty was the sheer volume of material and the necessity to progress the story, which meant omitting spectacular scenic footage.Iraq in Fragments was shot on the Panasonic DVX-100 and DVX-100A on 24p advanced 2:3:3:2 pulldown mode, letterboxed. The film was edited on the Apple Final Cut Pro at 24 fps, exported to 10-bit uncompressed HD onto five hard drives and color corrected at Modern Digital in Seattle. The 35mm filmout was created from a TIFF export. The file-to-film recording was done at Seattle’s Alpha Cine Labs. Production audio was recorded onto the camera and mixed in Dolby digital at Seattle’s Bad Animals Studios.Another documentary contender covered the war in Iraq from a different perspective. The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends is directed by activist and veteran filmmaker Patricia Foulkrod. “I tried to create a film that might blow the yellow ribbons off the trees and send all of us into the homes and communities of these veterans and take responsibility for those who kill in our names,” says Foulkrod.Like the soldiers whose stories the film tells, grappling with the nature of the footage was one of the most difficult things for editor Rob Hall, “I am a method editor. I put myself in the role of the subject matter… into the soldiers’ shoes,” he says.Interviews with Iraq vets form the spine of the film and function as the narrative. There is no imposed voiceover narration; the soldiers speak for themselves. Hall edited in tandem with the shooting, creating a wish-list of subject matter and sound bites that he felt were necessary to drive the narrative. Because so much of the film is interview-based, he had to find compelling images to keep the film visually engaging.Overcoming the lack of B-roll was one of Hall’s biggest challenges, combined with the challenge of how to illustrate an internal conflict. He had to create a cohesive look from footage shot on many different cameras, by many different shooters. Much of the new war footage was from amateur videos shot by the veterans themselves during their tours of duty.The film was shot in Sony DVCam and mini-DV. Hall edited on an Avid Xpress DV Pro. The film was up-rezed to HD and color corrected at Post Works, New York. It screened in HD.
Written by Mary Ann Skweres