Note: Behind every amazing documentary there is an amazing editor, or, more likely, a team of them! I was astonished when I watched festival darling MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A. so I wanted to inquire how editors Marina Katz and Gabe Rhodes were able to do this. Lucky for me, Marina was at the Berlinale at the same time as me. I wrote the following piece for No Film School!
Editor Marina Katz had the huge task of distilling the story of a global pop phenomenon from 20 years worth of video footage.
As a documentarian, I am fascinated when the subject of a film spends time behind his or her own camera. It is a joy when a documentarian has a treasure trove of footage with which to build backstories, enabling directors and editors to use the passage of time to let characters become so much more complete. Even if it only took a year to make a film, home video adds so many layers to any story.
The new documentary MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., which premiered globally at Sundance last month and made its European premiere at the Berlinale, about the groundbreaking singer M.I.A. (born Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) takes this to a whole new level. We learn in the film that, before she was a bona fide music star, Arulpragasam was an aspiring documentarian herself. Thus, this film shares tons of stories of her youth from the mundane (joking around with her sister while drinking alcohol) to her stint as the official documentarian of ‘90s rockstar Justine Frischmann from the band Elastica.
When a character has created a lifetime of video, it means that filmmakers can take many liberties to construct a stronger and more complex story; there are so many fewer holes that need to be filled in. Of course, this also means that there is more to be done in the editing room. For this film, the editors had the Herculean task of distilling 700 hours of footage down into a 90-minute final product that shows M.I.A. as much more than the pop star and Tamil activist that many know her as. It’s an excellent take on how to make your protagonist appear genuine, interesting, flawed, and human.
“There was a lot left on the cutting room floor. Some of it was hard to part with.”
The filmmaker, Stephen Loveridge, a school friend of the protagonist, and his team clearly had to make difficult choices and cut important parts of Arulpragasam’s life out of the documentary. And yes, that apparently irked his subject, but the editorial decisions were made thoughtfully. It was just as beautiful—and far more relatable—to see M.I.A. talking about singing with her grandmother when she was 18 than it would have been to see her on stage 10 years later or have Jimmy Iovine talking about her work.
No Film School sat down with Marina Katz, an editor of MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A., after the film’s Berlinale premiere, to discuss how those decisions were made, the challenges of telling a distilled story about a complex person, and more.
'MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.'
No Film School: What happens when you start with 700 hours of footage? How do you whittle it down to 90 minutes?
Katz: I had a somewhat unusual start because I inherited the project. In earlier iterations, other editors, assistants, and the director, had made their own selects and cuts. At first I was culling from what had already been worked on. But then at a certain point it became clear that I needed to go back and watch the raw material because I kept finding moments I loved that hadn’t made it into the selects. So I went back and watched raw footage for about a month, maybe a bit more.
You have to really trust your intuition and have a good process in place. I built long reels with my favorite moments and scenes from each period of Maya’s life. Then I cut those reels down more. Then you see what you have and what’s worth putting into the first assembly.
I had a hypothesis for the narrative of the film based on conversations with Steve (Steve Loveridge), the director, but at the beginning it’s really hard to know where you are going. It’s about putting forward your best guess while building a catalogue of favorite materials to draw from when that first guess inevitably doesn’t work out. Then the fun of iterating and reiterating begins and you start to see where the footage leads you.
"Initially, we tried to make a linear film. It seemed to make sense given Maya’s story and our material. But it didn’t work."
NFS: The film was non-linear. Can you tell me about that decision?
Katz: Initially we tried to make a linear film. It seemed to make sense given Maya’s story and our material. But it didn’t work. Among other issues, the beginning of the film felt bogged down by home movie footage. It also took too long to get to Maya becoming a musician. So we started to play around with non-linear versions. What can we bring to the front of the film to break up the archival material? How can we relate the present and the past?
When Maya was in her early 20s, before she became a musician, she took a seminal trip back home to Sri Lanka, the country she had fled as a refugee. She documented the trip extensively; we had about 40 hours of footage from that period alone. And the footage was very rich with ideas, moments, and scenes. In the chronological version of the film, we had a condensed version of the trip right before she started making music. When I started playing with the non-linear versions, I placed the trip later in the film, once she had already achieved fame. Because as much as the trip connects to her lyrics and artwork when she first gets into music, it also informs her art, activism, and outrage later in life.
We were still struggling with where to place the trip when Gabriel Rhodes joined the team [as editor] and, after watching the cut, suggested we return to Sri Lanka multiple times in the film. We tried and it clicked! It was liberating. Then it was all about figuring how many times to flashback to the trip and what we would learn with each flashback.
Film Subject Maya Arulpragasam a.k.a. M.I.A. and Director Stephen Loveridge attend the World Premiere of MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A. by Stephen Loveridge, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: photo by Tiffany Roohani © 2018 Sundance Institute
NFS: What was the greatest challenge you faced in editing this film?
Katz: Towards the end of the film Maya asks, “As a first generation immigrant, who lived through a war, came as a refugee, and is now a pop star, what are the goalposts?” The same could be said for the edit. Maya’s life is exceptionally layered and complex.
This is a music documentary about a fierce and uncompromising artist, but it’s also a film that grapples with what it means to be displaced, to try and assimilate in the West, to be connected to a “back home” that most people in the West don’t care about or understand. It’s a film dealing with censorship and a film dealing with fame. All of that and I haven’t even mentioned that Maya’s dad was the founder of the Tamil resistance movement! Weaving all of the elements together in a balanced and entertaining way was a delicate act.
Still, there was a lot left on the cutting room floor. Some of it was hard to part with (like the scenes with Peaches! She was a big inspiration for M.I.A.) and some of it wasn’t. The director never made it a priority to delve into Maya’s romantic relationships. They are in there a bit, but we don’t linger. It’s refreshing! I think there’s an expectation when it comes to female subjects, and especially female celebrities, that you delve into the details of their romantic lives. We were able to avoid that and give screentime to deeper and more interesting themes.
“You’ll spend days trying to put together something you think logically will work, and then you spend a couple of hours trying a ‘crazy’ idea and suddenly that clicks.”
NFS: How do you work with another editor? Tell me about your process.
Katz: This was my first time working side-by-side with another editor and it was very fun to edit with Gabe. We worked collaboratively. We would usually talk about a strategy for the week and then decide on which sections to tackle. We often passed sections back and forth. Gabe had the advantage of fresh eyes and I had the advantage of knowing the material inside and out, having had worked on the film for almost a year.
We are both very direct people and had really good communication from the start. Neither of us were precious with the material and we were very open to trying each other’s ideas.
We used Trello, an online software, to storyboard. Our edit suites were pretty small and we didn’t have space to put up index cards outlining the film. Also the director was in London and this made it easy to pass our storyboards to him for feedback. We also had a great consultant editor, Geoff Richman, who had access to Trello and could give chime in on the storyboards as well.
Home video footage of a young M.I.A. in Sri Lanka from 'MATANGI / MAYA / M.I.A.'
NFS: Isn’t all editing experimentation?
Katz: It’s a lot of experimentation. You’ll spend days trying to put together something you think logically will work, and then you spend a couple of hours trying a ‘crazy’ idea and suddenly that clicks.
For instance, we never thought we would have Steve, the director, in the film. Even though we had archival footage of him and Maya from when they were in film school together, using it felt problematic for many reasons. But months in and after a few very frustrating weeks working on the beginning of the film, I tried a quick, two-hour experiment. I interviewed Steve on my iPhone and then put together a scene with his voiceover. It worked. It gave us fresh momentum and helped to unlock a piece of the puzzle. We were then able to iterate on that idea—by bringing in more voiceover, then removing it, then changing it, etc. until we got it right.
NFS: And your advice for aspiring editors?
Katz: Try to balance any assisting work with editing projects. I learned so much and honed my instincts by continually editing small projects on the side, even if they didn’t pay much. Also, if you are in New York, connect with The Edit Center! I got my start with the six-week editing course but they have plenty of shorter classes and the most kind and helpful alumni network.
NFS: What didn’t I ask you about that you want to share?
Katz: Sometimes when I talk about the film it sounds so serious! Although it deals with serious themes, it’s still a very entertaining and fun film. It may not always be obvious when you read the press, but Maya has a great sense of humor. Plus, when I edit I’m always on the lookout for funny moments and scenes. It’s been great to hear a lot of audience laughter at our screenings.