One of the things I worried about when I became a teacher was forgetting what it was like to be a student. I didn’t want to be one of those teachers who expected students to just “get it.” I didn’t want to bulldoze my students with excessive information or overwhelming expectations. Because learning can be hard.
I had the same fear when I became an editor. Would I forget what it was like to labor over a piece only to have it dissected and delivered to me in a bag?
I think I kept my sense of empathy while I was a teacher because I had to go back to school myself during that time. So I was on both ends of the red pen. But, because editing takes up so much of my time, I haven’t been doing a lot of writing lately – at least, not the kind that feels like wresting an organ from your body.
But a few days ago, I had an experience that made me a humbler editor.
I used to say that I’m almost finished editing a documentary film, but the critique I received from a veteran filmmaker made me revise my statement. I am now in the middle of editing a documentary film.
I shot the film from 2004 to 2006, gathering 125 hours of footage, and I’ve been editing it ever since. It has been a bigger job that I had originally thought. I made transcripts of all the tapes. I put together story outlines. I logged and captured footage. I put sequences together. I added this piece and chucked that. But after years of work, I finally had what I thought looked like a pretty decent movie. I let a few friends look at it, and they had all said positive things, none really offering any suggestions for improvement (besides things like adding Angelina Jolie to the cast).
So I sent the movie off to this filmmaker for a critique, my hopes high that I could have it in the festival circuit this fall. He was very encouraging, but I could tell from his forthright analysis that I have at least another year of work ahead of me.
A year of work.
Kinda grates on the ears, doesn’t it?
I sat feeling exhausted and discouraged for a while after that conversation. But as I thought over the suggestions he had given me, I could start to see the logic behind them. I could see how they would affect the flow of the story, and I could see that they would make the film better. I was suddenly very grateful for every incision the filmmaker had made into my movie’s body. But I can still see all that work stretching out in the front of me, and I’m not exactly chomping at the bit.
I’m going to do it, though. Seems a waste to spend such a large period of my life on a project without bringing it as close to perfection as possible. For me, few pleasures are greater than crafting something with microscopic precision. It’s almost like creating a self-sustaining life – something that works especially well because it’s rooted in principles that unify the life and vitality poured into it.
I’m not a trained filmmaker. I’m an amateur. I don’t have a strong grasp of the principles of cinema (one look at a lot of my camera work would convince you quickly). I’m glad that someone who has been working in documentary film since before I was born is willing to guide me. I’m glad not in spite of the fact that he points out the weaknesses in my work, but because he does.
I feel a lot like the people from hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce who step off a bus that has brought them to heaven, only to find out that even the grass they try to stand upon is more substantial than they are. They all need someone who is willing to help them grow more solid, especially if they’re thinking about staying.
I appreciate my critiquer’s encouragement, but I appreciate his honest analysis even more. He’s right, I don’t want to put out half-baked work. If my life is worth investing in this project, I’m going to make sure the investment pays off.
So, as an editor, I will be more encouraging, because I want people to write. I want them to have faith that their offerings are honored and that they can make a difference in the world. But I will also insist on honoring those offerings to the fullest by insisting that they enter the world as perfect as our combined powers can manage.