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Interview with Anne Fabini, Editing Lab Mentor

Anne Fabini is the editor of the Oscar-nominated documentary Of Fathers and Sons by Syrian director Talal Derki. Among her fiction credits are the Berlin Film Festival 2020 competitor One of These Days, by Bastian Günther, Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, winner of two awards at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and Jennifer Fox’s Independent Spirit Awards nominated The Tale (2019). She is also the winner of the German Film Award for Best Film Editing and the prestigious German Film Critics Award. Anne Fabini is a member of Rough Cut Service.

Anne is our long-time mentor, and this year she is back at Docs By The Sea Accelerator to give mentorship at our Editing Lab. In this interview we talk to her about the technicalities of film editing, how to work with a director, and how to know that a movie is “done”.

What’s your experience like being a mentor at Docs By The Sea this year?

Having the sessions with my project teams was really nice because we could discuss things, ask the important questions, go into the depth of the project, and discuss scenes or the challenges of the projects. We use our time for laying a little bit the theoretical basis of what is needed to start editing, what is really the mindset that you need to be in when you start editing a project, or when you work in the editing, because the mindset is clearly different when you edit from when you shoot. When you get to the editing stage, it feels like you have to start all over again or start at a different point. Editing is actually telling the story to an audience.

For filmmakers, it can be really challenging to move from their director’s point of view to put themselves in the shoes of the audience. What is it that I need to establish first before I can get going with my story? I need to establish the place, the atmosphere, the social context or the historical context of the people that I'm talking about before I talk about story arcs, character arcs, and dramaturgical issues.

An editor might work with hundreds of hours of footage. What is the ideal flow of work for an editor?

I think that the big challenge nowadays is that there is a lot of footage being produced while shooting. We see more and more projects with really high amounts, hundreds of hours of footage, which is really hard to deal with when you start editing.

I'm also concerned by more and more directors editing their films by themselves, because in my opinion, it is not the best. I think an editor is absolutely needed in the process of documentary storytelling, whether it is an editor who works hands-on from nine to five, five days a week, or whether it's just a consultant editor. An editor is somebody who provides an opportunity for dialogue, and dialogue is so important because the story needs to be told. You need to be able to tell your story even before you can tell it visually as a film. Dialogue in the editing room is oftentimes helpful to provide this storytelling and then put the story into words, then you can also tell it as a film.

At the initial stage of editing, a documentary needs to be, in a way I call it dividing reality into scenes. When we shoot, we are often not aware of scenes, but a scene for me is something like a little container of information and emotion that has a function in the film, in the dramaturgical structure of the film. So, the first part of work as an editor or director is to be very clear about scenes that I have. You need to start seeing hundreds of hours of footage in terms of scenes. That's why we sometimes encourage people to write their scene lists or to really start thinking about scenes like a script writer in a fictional film.

Nowadays, the challenge is to transform reality into a film. A documentary does not equal reality. A documentary is always in a way, a fictionalised way of telling a story or the way that we live through an experience and the way that we tell the experience to somebody else, and it makes a difference if this somebody else is your mum or your little brother or your neighbour, or if it's a complete stranger or your teacher. You will tell the story in different ways. And this is something you have to have in mind when you are editing a documentary. It’s also preparing how I am telling the story, and what impact each scene has on the viewers. So, it can be a very rational way of working and analytical way of working.

Some say that editing starts when you shoot. Do you agree with this statement?

Oftentimes, directors edit their films by themselves because of financial needs. I think sometimes it is also because of lack of experience or trust, because of course, when you start working with a person as close as we work together in the editing process, you need to trust that person. So, of course, it's a very personal and deep relationship that you build in the edit room. But, yes, I think it's not the ideal way.

At what stage should a director start to have a discussion with an editor?

I think the answer can vary immensely. I think there is no rule to that. There are some cases when the editor is involved from the very beginning when the project is being spoken about for the first time, or when you start making a film out of the subject that you want to cover. Editing is telling the story.

Another option is you could shoot all the footage and then you sit down and make a selection of what you shot, and also bring down the number of hours of footage. In my opinion, 20-30 hours of footage is something manageable to work with in an amount of time. That seems reasonable even to producers, because otherwise when you start out editing with 200 hours, then it will be very hard to edit in less than six or even ten months or more. No production company aims for such a long editing process. So, I think the sooner you start talking to your editor, and also not only talking about the storytelling, but also defining methods of how we could proceed faster or editing small sequences before you go back to shoot some more can be very helpful and can speed the process up. So, in that sense, yes, it totally makes sense to get an editor involved as early as possible.

What is the ideal relationship between director and editor?

A relationship that is marked by trust and respect and affection for each other. I must be interested in your mind, and the director must be interested in my mind, and in my way of seeing the world. I think that as editors, we are trained to put ourselves in the shoes of audiences, but also of directors. We are very trained, empathy is like a key, a trait that we need to bring to the set. So, working relationships can be very fruitful when they are marked by trust and respect mostly.

When do you know a movie is “done”?

Editing is a process. You see something grow, you see something flourish, you see something become something different from what it was initially. To me, it feels like a very natural process. When you are going through that process, and you are also observing the process, you're not only observing the outcome, but also reflecting on the process that you had. It's a process over several weeks, months, a long time, then you get a notion of when the process starts slowing down, and you review your film again, we screen our films over and over again.

And I personally notice that I have less and less notes that I write down while reviewing or screening my film. And then the notes are becoming less and less and less and then I think, “Okay, so now we are there!” But yes, I think that when you're in the process you have a very good feeling about where you are. It's like a journey, basically with no map, and no pre-booked tickets, no hotels pre-booked. It's an adventurous journey. And each editing process is different. So, be prepared, be prepared for adventure.