SIDING WITH THE WEAK: Empathy and film editing

In his renowned book about film editing, Walter Murch recounts a comment he once received after admitting to being a film editor: “Oh, editing. That’s where you cut out the bad bits.” To which he replied: “It is much more than that. Editing is structure, color, dynamics, manipulation of time, all of these other things, etc., etc.”1

Yes. It’s always difficult to define what film editing is. As a professional movie editor who occasionally teaches film editing and who also co-hosts a podcast about film editing – called “Montatori Anonimi” – I often find myself in the same situation: how do I communicate what I do, without babbling what could sound to the ears of someone not familiar with the job like claims of somebody frustrated by working in the shades and not getting any public eulogy for what he achieved after weeks and months of struggles? 

If it’s difficult to describe what you do, how do you even teach it? I always start my classes by saying “Film editing has no rule. It only has methods, which you have to invent yourself every time you begin a new job.” Even Walter Murch, in his famous Rule of 6 (which could sound like a contradiction: the only rule in a field with no rule! But it’s the usual exception that proves it), places the Emotion as the first and most important motive of a cut. Once again, emotions are subjective, therefore how can you theorize about them?

According to Murch, the perfect cut should happen in the blink of an eye. Of the spectator’s eye, which seeks light and movement inside a frame. In his book “Order in Chaos”, Niels Pagh Andersen goes more deeply into this idea, wittingly proposing that the spectator’s eye actually looks for the character’s eye. Because it’s the only way we have to understand the other: an ancestral legacy that pushes us to look for the eye guessing the other’s emotions – is he a friend or an enemy? Because only if we feel the other’s emotions, we understand their struggle, and we can identify ourselves with them. Cinema is identification and identification means empathy.

In the very first pages of his book, Pagh Andersen writes about a personal crisis he suffered after realizing that while he was editing fiction films, he was missing the magic of cinema. He couldn’t enjoy anymore editing movies: he felt like he received little in return for the effort. But then he discovered documentaries: “Editing documentaries is often harder than editing feature films, because there is seldom a script, and reality is complex and unpredictable. In addition, the amount of raw material that goes into documentaries is often significantly larger than with feature films. This offers greater possibilities, but also more chances of getting lost. You have to relate to the world as it is and not be lulled by your own-preconceptions about how you think the world should look. Reality forces you to take a stand.”2

Taking a stand is what Niels Pagh Andersen does in every movie he edits, or at least that is what appears to happen if you look at his filmography (“Before accepting a job”, he told me in a conversation we had on June 8th, 2022, “I always ask myself does the world need that film? And there are many films I said no to at first: “The Act of Killing” and “Human Flow”, for example. But those were because I knew they were going to be a fucking hard job. Am I really willing to give myself fully because this would cost me sleepless nights and so on?”3). It is also what appears to happen when you read “Order in Chaos”. The empathy he shows for the stories, the characters, and the people he works with, takes a substantial role even in the way he works: the honest discussion he first has with the director, the way he watches the rushes, the way he organizes his job. The respect he shows for the director and the footage – “And the audience!”4 he stressed during our conversation. The way he structures his first cut, and the way he receives the first feedback. All the process has to be created from scratch every time: “When I start on a new film, I try to forget everything I’ve edited before, and all the experience I’ve gathered as a storyteller.”5 Again, no rule, only a method.

I remember the lessons we had at film school, we mostly watched movies and discussed them, analyzing sequences and scenes. Fine, it was all very interesting and helpful (especially for me, who didn’t study cinema before) but in the end, I was always a bit frustrated. I felt I wasn’t learning how to cut a sequence: what would I do with a car chase scene or with a simple dialogue? From where would I start: from the close-up? But of whom? We spent hours organizing footage on Avid and cutting on the Steenbeck, but still, I didn’t feel I was making any progress. But then I watched Roberto Perpignani, my maestro, watching rushes, taking notes, organizing sequences, and making the first cut. It was the method he used that struck me, this constantly watching rolls of takes forward and reverse, like you would have done with film on a Steenbeck. He would study every subtle movement of the actors, every trembling of the eyebrow, every tic of the mouth. And then he cut without hesitation. As Pagh Andersen writes in his book: “The first thing I do when I start looking through material for a film is fall in love”6. Falling in love means understanding each detail of the other person. What they say, how they move, and how they react to the events they witness or live. Even if they are persons who act on a screen. 

“One of the good things with experience is that you know yourself better, both your strengths and your weaknesses. So some of the weaknesses I have, I also have to compensate for them. For example, I am a romantic person, sometimes I can be too sentimental, so I have to watch out for that. It can also be sometimes this tendency I have towards beauty, trying to make beautiful scenes – all of us want to create beautiful things, but the problem with beauty is that it destroys emotional power”7, he told me.

Niels Pagh Andersen (on the left) and Beppe Lonetti (on the right)

When I edit, after a little while I usually absorb some of the characteristics of the protagonists. I think it’s an unconscious way of trying to remain in the mood of the film even if I am not sitting at my desk so that I can always think of solutions and imagine possibilities. Along with the director, we repeat sentences, and we imitate movements and reactions: it’s a lingo that grows automatically between us and that becomes part of our relationship (and it’s something you could never explain to somebody who doesn’t know how film editing works because they would look at you as if you were weird, but it’s something quite relevant for the movie: a film editor once told me “You can’t talk about film editing because editing a movie is like a marriage, and you don’t go around telling everyone what happens in the bedroom.”) 

Like in a sentimental relationship, on the first day of editing with the director, I am always very nervous. I noticed I usually procrastinate the moment of the first cut, as if it could be a revealing moment: revealing my ineptitude, maybe. 

Many editors I spoke to, claimed to suffer from impostor syndrome. Whether this is true or not, it surely marks a point on the idea that editing a movie stands on the sentimental relationship field: I won’t worry if I don’t remember how to place a cross-dissolve; I worry because I am not sure if I’ll make the “right” decision. I have to draw a line here, stating that you may know all of Media Composer’s shortcuts by heart, but you can’t consider yourself an editor if you never worked sitting next to the director. “The editing room is a space where some of the most important tools are honesty, vulnerability, and doubt”8, Pagh Andersen writes. 

“I think when I was younger I had much more the fear that I was not a good enough editor. I hadn’t been to film school, but then people started to have education in editing, and then I felt they have learned something I didn’t. But fear is paralyzing, while doubt is very important in every creative work. Is this not good enough or could it be done differently, all this questioning your work and seeing it from different angles…”9 Niels told me. 

My maestro Roberto used to say that we as editors need to constantly question ourselves and our work, and we constantly need to doubt. Because that’s what an editor does: doubts, questions, and finds alternative solutions. “Doubt constantly makes us question what we are doing, and drives us to do our best”10, writes Pagh Andersen towards the end of the first part of the book.

After having guided us from his autobiography into some of the mechanisms of his work, he gives us some examples of how he applies all of his feelings and “tools” in the editing room. I won’t go into detail here, not to spoil some fascinating details of some of the most impressive documentaries of his career: “Dying – a Part of Living”, by Dola Bonfils, “The German Secret” by Lars Johansson, “Flying – Confessions of a Free Woman”, by  Jennifer Fox, “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia”, by Pirjo Honkasalo”, “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” by Joshua Oppenheimer, “Mogadishu Soldier” by Torstein Grude and “Human Flow” by Ai Weiwei.

In this second part of the book, the author actually shows the reader how to apply the tools he described, and we can clearly see how empathy (and no judgment) guides the editor’s choice in dealing with the “chaotic reality” of the war in Chechnya, for example, and he needs to interpret it, thus simplify it, while editing “The 3 Rooms of Melancholia” as if it was a symphony. Or when he had to deal with the horrible stories of the genocide in Indonesia, told from the perspective of the executioners. 

“The Act of Killing” is maybe the best example of the empathy that Niels Pagh Andersen describes throughout his book. In having to relate to the executioners’ point of view, many ethical questions are raised. Which are connected to narrative questions: how can the audience identify itself with a character who committed atrocities everyone would condemn and therefore is totally unsympathetic? Pagh Andersen depicts the process he went through along with the director, describing the fascinating storyline they build around the main character, Anwar, and the language they decided to adopt to structure the movie – and of course the ethical implications. But what essentially emerges from the chapter dedicated to “The Act of Killing” is that documentarists walk along a narrow path. On one side there’s reality and fiction on the other. You have to be aware of reality, and not deceive it, but at the same time you have to remember that you are making a movie, therefore you need to translate your material into a new language using some of the tools at your disposal. Real people should become characters, each with his own-emotional evolution. You have to understand this evolution, you have to identify with them.

Because, again, it’s just a matter of relationship, of empathy. “It’s all about people”: brilliantly, Pagh Andersen thus entitles what for me is the central chapter of his book, in which the author defines simply and clearly what cinema is: “A filmic story is an emotional development over time.”11 Emotion, again, which again leads to empathy: for the purpose of understanding the characters’ struggle, we need to be sympathetic to them.

“Documentary film has a long tradition of siding with the weak. It is difficult to film in the real world without recognizing the obvious injustices.”12 Siding with the weak: I think Pagh Andersen’s vision of cinema in general and editing in particular, is all here, in those sentences. Everything is political, that’s what you get from Pagh Andersen’s account. Making a movie is political. Editing a movie is very political because editors have the power to shape the image of the world. They can make their protagonist into victims, and their antagonists into pure evil. They can also fake reality, as we see these days.  “On the contrary, we need to constantly question how we humans shape our world, but at the same time, we also need to constantly question our own-motivations and methods when we are depicting this world.”13

Beppe Leonetti is an Italian film editor. He collaborated, among the others, with Nanni Moretti (“Il diario di uno spettatore”, segment of “Chacun son cinema”, 2009), Guido Lombardi (“Là Bas”, Lion of the Future at the 68th Venice Film Festival), Brecht Debackere (“EXPRMNTL”, BFI London Film Festival 2016), Gregor Božič (“Stories from the chestnut woods”, best editing award at Festival Slovenska Filma 2019).

Leonetti’s photo by Eleni Molfeta

  1. Murch, W. (2005). In the blink of an eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, Silman-James Press, p.23
  2. Pagh Andersen, N. (2021), Order in Chaos. Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film, Pagh Productions
  3. Skype conversation between the author and Niels Pagh Andersen on June 8th, 2022.
  4. ibid.
  5. Pagh Andersen, N. (2021), Order in Chaos. Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film, Pagh Productions
  6. ibid.
  7. Skype conversation between the author and Niels Pagh Andersen on June 8th, 2022.
  8. Pagh Andersen, N. (2021), Order in Chaos. Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film, Pagh Productions
  9. Skype conversation between the author and Niels Pagh Andersen on June 8th, 2022.
  10. Pagh Andersen, N. (2021), Order in Chaos. Storytelling and Editing in Documentary Film, Pagh Productions
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid.
  13. ibid.

This article was commissioned by  Istituto Italiano di Cultura Helsinki for the Moving People and Images Journal (MPI Journal)