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This is the third in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum.
The Act of Killing Editor Niels Pagh Andersen has worked as a film editor since 1979 and cut more than 250 films, both in fiction and documentary. In August 2014, Nusbaum and Andersen discussed how Andersen worked closely with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer to take a massive amount of footage — shot by Oppenheimer and a large crew of filmmakers in Indonesia over many years — and craft the Academy Award® nominated film, one of the most honored films of 2013.
The Act of Killing premieres Monday, October 6, 2014 at 10 PM on PBS. The conversation below was edited down from a longer interview.
Colin Nusbaum: The Act of Killing looks at evil so closely. Looking at a character like Anwar, your main subject of the film, as the face of that evil, I am curious how you dealt with the needs of the audience, and their willingness to watch a person who is the embodiment of that.
Niels Pagh Andersen: Before I came on, Joshua [Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing] was sitting in London for almost a year with two junior editors, so I got around 35 hours of edited scenes, but without structure, and we had to recut the scenes. That’s where we built Anwar as the main character. We were re-editing the scenes from his point of view. It wasn’t just what everyone was doing, it was how does that affect Anwar.
We wanted to have a story that didn’t just show Anwar as an individual — we wanted to show that he is part of a society, a structure, from almost the president down to the man who is doing the dirty work. So it was very complicated. But what was important to me was that Anwar, our main character, changed.
I think as a human being, I wouldn’t have been able to edit the film if there hadn’t been that ending scene where [Anwar] — not intellectually understands, but is changing. He can dance his cha-cha-cha on the roof and tell the story. But he is reacting to what he has done, so he is changing.
Some of the other guys in the film were just living with what they’d done. There is another character, Adi, who says, “What about Guantanamo? What about the Americans? The winner is always right.” He is just cleaning his hands. He is much more scary for me. So as a paradox, to me, Anwar represents hope in that he is changing. Otherwise, I couldn’t have done that film, it would have been too dark.
In Anwar’s narrative line, we have to build up the nightmare. It’s a story about a man who tells his story, and while he is doing that, he destroys himself somehow. So that was some of the consideration.
Colin Nusbaum: In that sense, part of your task as an editor was looking for some of those moments where he was coming to terms with himself and his story. Is that what it became for you?
Niels Pagh Andersen: Yes. But we also needed to give him small private moments… Not just to concentrate on the words and the actions, but give him space. Our problem throughout was overkill. You know, in this film, we had to think about when we would make the audience numb. We needed breathing space.
Colin Nusbaum: I heard that Joshua started the project by speaking to the victims. How did the editing change that narrative to become the story we see?
Niels Pagh Andersen: It was a long journey. The film was shot over many years. In the beginning, there was a thousand hours of material — there were 30-plus scenes that you could create a film out of. Joshua had wanted to tell the victims’ stories, but they were interrupted all the time by anti-communist organizations. And then the victims asked why he didn’t try talking with [the perpetrators]. Joshua came to realize that all of them needed to tell their stories somehow.
In their own minds, they are heroes, and somebody had to do the dirty job. In the first cuts, there were also shots with some of victims’ families and so on — but we decided, in the editing, that we would leave out that material. Because we were working on a premise that evil is human, we realized that the whole film couldn’t be the storytelling of the evil. We decided to leave out the victims’ stories, because if we had them in the same film, it would just make [the perpetrators] more monstrous.
It’s funny, but The Act of Killing is also about how we human beings tell stories. I do it, you do it… Often, the most important things in our lives are our decisions made by emotions, and then after, we are trying to make sense of them. To make them logical. We tell a story to create logic in our lives. That counts for these guys as well.
But in storytelling — and this is why I consider myself a storyteller — we work with good and evil and that essence all the time. The Act of Killing was to tell a story with no good guys.
Colin Nusbaum: I also wonder about the surrealist and the performative aspects of what’s happening in The Act of Killing. Specifically, how you thought about those, if working as a fiction editor informed the way you thought about them, and how you imagined those would function in the film.
Niels Pagh Andersen: I started working as an editor when I was very young, beginning in my 20s and I am now I’m in my mid-50s. And there are a couple films in my career that changed me, not only as an editor, but as a human being in some ways. I think The Act of Killing absolutely is one of them.
Because when I started with documentary film, it was cinéma vérité. It was Frederick Wiseman, fly on the wall, looking at reality from outside. We didn’t interfere, we hardly put it in a dramaturgical structure. But I think as modern human beings, we have changed. We are seeing ourselves from outside. We are tweeting, posting on Instagram, seeing not only ourselves as stories, but also as images. And I think that is changing the documentary film.
What is interesting for me, because I am looking for the truth of an authentic moment, is when suddenly, the performance cracks. I think we human beings can smell when people are authentic. Do you, as an editor, have a very good sense of when people are kind of performing for the camera? You know, when you’re sitting and editing, we can smell it. Of course, we as editors, we have to be conscious about it because we are looking for true moments in a material, moments where the character forgets themselves, so to speak.
But you can also go the other way around, where you are encouraging people to perform. And then suddenly, during the process, something happens, and we see the gap between their performance and their real truth, whatever it is, and they’re being authentic.
I found it very interesting. I hadn’t put it in a historical perspective before, but it’s one of the things I think a lot about lately.
Colin Nusbaum: When you were a younger editor, how might you have approached a film with hundreds of hours of footage? What is that process of looking for the nuggets, those true authentic moments that you can really build your film around?
Niels Pagh Andersen: Trusting instinct. I think all of us have it. When I was a young editor, I thought I should be much wiser than I was. I had an idea of what a film should do, and I thought I should be able to look at all the material, see the film in front of me and the structure. But what I’ve realized is, OK, I can outline, but I can’t see the details. I have to trust my instincts.
Editors are the first audience, and we only see what’s within the frame. A lot of directors want to sit with you and explain, because they want to do a good job, and because they are excited. I have to say, “Please, be quiet, it is me who is explaining what I experience, not what we should do with the film, that comes next.” Because on the subtext level, [the person on screen] might be saying all the right words, but there is something in his look, and I can smell something that is not good. If you have the scene transcribed, it’s nothing. But the way that he is pausing and so on, it moves me. And months into the editing process, what we are losing is that subtext level… So it’s important that I make my first experience hone in on the subtext level.
Relax and watch and sense, and don’t think you should be wiser than you are. Our biggest truth is our senses, it’s our eyes, and then of course we have our knowledge of telling stories, but first take in and then we can be wise.
Colin Nusbaum: Comparatively, can you tell me about the new film [The Look of Silence] and what the experience was like compared to The Act of Killing?
Niels Pagh Andersen: I don’t have the right to tell. But I do have a feeling that it’s a surprisingly good film. It’s the victim’s story. It’s their perspective. The Act of Killing is so pushy, it’s kind of aggressive, it’s too much, where The Look of Silence is silent, it has much more space for the visual, aesthetic dimension. We have worked more with the subtext. It’s a much simpler story, but simplicity has also given us space to reach other levels. We don’t have to “tell” as much in this film.
Because I worked with Josh for one year [on The Act of Killing], and we worked very hard, we had to find a language together. [On The Look of Silence], it has been almost too easy. Once in a while, we looked at one another and said, “Can it be so easy?” It’s one of the few films in my career that almost edited itself.
We already trusted each other 200 percent. We got a lot of self-confidence because of The Act of Killing, and said, what the f—, people have to take it or leave it. But [before the release of The Act of Killing] nobody knew how the world would react. I remember, when we made our last cut and we all went out to eat I made a toast and I said something to Josh like, “I don’t know how the world would perceive this film, but one thing I am sure of it is that the world hasn’t seen anything like it.” But it gave us confidence to say, “OK, we did it with The Act of Killing, so we can also do it here.”
Colin Nusbaum: That certainly went through my head — I’d never see anything like it! I definitely felt that reflection of evil and the rumination of what we are capable of, it was all so potent.
Niels Pagh Andersen: I’ve also learned that stories are dangerous. The dramaturgy that divides the world into good and bad. That is also what makes people kill us. The Communists, the Nazis, the Muslim, the Jews… we are dehumanizing the other. Because normally it’s a taboo. It’s not that us human beings like to kill. The most killings are people who love one another, people who know each other very well. And then there is those bigger killings, wars and so on, and there, the politicians, the generals, all those kinds of people, they have to create stories, so people will go out and kill. And then the reasoning is, “I killed because they were Communist, a person not like me.”
That is the big turning point for Anwar. That scene, when he is acting as a victim, when he asks, “Did they feel the same as me?” And Joshua says, “Maybe, because they knew they were going to die.” But it’s showing that we are dehumanizing each other, it is part of the storytelling. That is part of my job as a storyteller to work with the good and the bad.
Colin Nusbaum: What you are doing is also the opposite, in a sense, that is an act of humanizing both sides, and by allowing both sides to be human on screen in the story that you’re telling.
Niels Pagh Andersen: That’s a wonderful thing about our job, it is that the film teaches us, we can be wise. Both in fiction and documentary film, but I think it’s much more given — I learn much more, and it’s much harder to cut documentary film. But I get so much back.
The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. The fellowship is awarded annually to one emerging documentary film editor. The 2014 deadline is September 30, 2014.