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MIFF 2018: Anaarkali Of Aarah editor Jabeen Merchant sheds light on editing documentaries

In a masterclass, Merchant shared her process of editing a documentary, and listed a few dos and don'ts for young directors and editors.

Photo: PIB

Sonal Pandya

A Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate, editor Jabeen Merchant began editing documentaries with Jari Mari: Of Cloth And Other Stories (2001). Since then, she has worked on a number of diverse and acclaimed documentaries like No Problem! (2012) and Kaagaz Ki Kashti (2017).

Merchant has also edited feature films like Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), NH10 (2015) and Anaarkali Of Aarah (2017). On Tuesdsay (30 January) she was invited for a masterclass titled ‘Constructing the Documentary Narrative’, at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF).

The informative session dispelled many myths about the documentary-making process. Merchant also revealed her own process of editing a documentary; giving tips to young directors and editors about to embark on the process.

She opened her talk by stating that even a documentary, though non-fiction, tells a story, just like works of fiction do.

Jabeen Merchant at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival

Documentaries don’t have a written screenplay. “For documentaries, the shooting generates the raw material,” Merchant said. The story has to be built from there.

Additionally, the genre isn’t usually viewed as entertaining or fun, but rather as reality or education. She pointed out that, unfortunately, some filmmakers go by this viewpoint. The genre, too, is a fundamental part of cinema, the first filmmakers in the world and even in India were all technically documentarians.

One of her pet peeves is the fact that bad filmmaking in the genre is ignored for the sake of the issue. “We forgive shoddy filmmaking too easily,” she said.

To demonstrate that a documentary could be anything, Merchant screened different opening sequences from the films she has edited.

She explained how the opening has to hook a viewer and set the tone of the film. Some examples were shocking, others were comical, abstract and docudramas too. According to Merchant, it prepares the audience for the style of the film.

Constructing a narrative in the film is the work of an editor, Merchant said. However, she added that the filmmaker should have some idea of what they want to say before the editing begins. The construction begins at the time of shooting, even though it isn’t in the hands of the director.

Although, there are no retakes in documentaries, Merchant believes that certain shots if not achieved properly the first time, could be re-shot.

She said good editing comes from the material received from the director. The more they have planned and constructed their work during the shoot, the better. An editor has to wade through hours of footage before they have something — seconds or minutes long footage — that can be used in the final cut.

For one film, she had to sort through around 75 hours of material and states that often, only 2% of the original footage makes it to the film.

Merchant told the audience, who were mostly filmmakers, that nowadays with data cards, most documentary directors aren’t aware of how many hours they have shot, but only how much storage the footage occupies on the computer.

She stressed that it was important for the director to go through the footage and see what was shot. “If you are not aware of what you have shot, that means you are not in control,” Merchant explained. “You are giving up control of the film to someone else.”

A filmmaker will know what works and what doesn’t only after going through the entire footage, and the understanding may come after multiple viewing too. Merchant said her own process begins by taming the material — sorting, logging and labelling it. “It is a lot of hard work to be creative when making a documentary,” she said.

When it comes to interviews, Merchant said directors should have them transcribed before going to the editing stage, adding that she finds much resistance from filmmakers on this point, but asserted that the process saves a lot of time.

Furthermore, she noted that when working on a new project, the material itself will have guidelines and patterns. One begins by creating mini-narratives and the film builds up from there. “Not everything you edit will make into the final film,” she reiterated. But once the main issue has been addressed, one gets an idea on how to proceed.

“Stories unfold with layers of meaning, they are not only about what people are saying,” Merchant said. That comes from exploring the material through different angles while editing. "Make connections through different things and find ways to tie them together," she advised. But every cut should be deliberate.

The masterclass ended with a question and answer session in which the audience asked Merchant about specific issues that they’ve faced and the blurring line between documentary and fiction.

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Mumbai International Film Festival