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Berlinale

How the ‘MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.’ Editor Crafted 700 Hours of Footage into a Fest Favorite Doc

How the ‘MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.’ Editor Crafted 700 Hours of Footage into a Fest Favorite Doc

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.      

Berlinale 2018: Why the Blockchain Could Fundamentally Change How Business is Done in the Film Industry

Berlinale 2018: Why the Blockchain Could Fundamentally Change How Business is Done in the Film Industry

I recently wrote this piece for the film community at NoFilmSchool.com.

A new company is using the blockchain to help eliminate waste (and shady people) in the film industry.

[Author’s note: Prior to reading this article, it is advisable for readers to peruse the Wikipedia “Blockchain” entry or the briefer definition of Blockchain in Investopedia.]

Technology and the film industry have had a historically rocky relationship. 20 years ago, Blockbuster ruled the at-home video market and famously (or infamously) rejected the opportunity to purchase Netflix for a mere $50 million. Today, Netflix has a $120 billion market cap and is poised to dominate the film industry for years to come.

Yes, market leaders like Netflix and Amazon are surely experimenting with algorithmic programming and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in attempts to take humans out of the screenwriting equation to give viewers what the companies think they want. But there are other forms of technology that can help improve the independent film business and even have the possibility to revolutionize how films are made—and more importantly, how production staff from actors to directors to below the line crew are paid. 

Enter FilmChain, a project started by BigCouch co-founders Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala. The goal of FilmChain is to increase accountability and transparency in the murky independent film financing world by using blockchain, the underlying technology behind Bitcoin. However, during their presentation at the Berlinale’s European Film Market startup pitch event, the pair were quick to debunk the myth that blockchain and Bitcoin are one and the same. Let it be known, they aren’t! As an oversimplified way to distinguish them, Bitcoin is a digital cryptocurrency, and the blockchain was developed as a decentralized way to record and account for Bitcoin transactions which has now expanded to use for a variety of commercial applications.

FilmChain is a revenue collection and allocation platform operating on blockchain technology that aims to service film and digital content creators by collecting revenues and automatically distributing them to stakeholders. If successful, FilmChain will mean that one can say goodbye to loads of middlemen who take a piece of the pie during the filmmaking process. 

The benefits of the blockchain to help film distribution processes are many: global transactions are typically costly, frequently people don’t get paid for the work they do, and the accounting books on numerous independent productions either is non-existent or riddled with errors.

Manuel Badel of Badel Media in Canada discussed other strong points of how blockchain technology can improve the film business:

  • IP protection - proof of ownership
  • Digital rights management - registration, tracking, royalties
  • Contracting - automation and smart contracts between stakeholders
  • Collaboration - scriptwriting and product design
  • Micropayments - tokens, crypto, crowdfunding, royalties, recoupment
  • Content distribution - decentralization, trust, and disrupted distribution. 

Who will gain?

Who stands to benefit from this FilmChain technology? Anyone who works on a production!

What makes “smart contracts” revolutionary is that they are triggered automatically. For example, say you are a screenwriter based in America and your contract says you will get paid $10,000 on the first day of production of a film produced and set in China. Once that first day of production happens, your $10,000 will automatically be triggered and you will get paid. Contracts could be set up such that, for instance, three individuals confirming that production started on a specific day would be all that is necessary to send an instant payment halfway around the world. 

Who will lose?

And who stands to lose from blockchain technology being implemented in the film business? Shady film financiers who don’t make good on the payouts they owe, therefore stealing money from others who rightfully deserve it.

Of course, shady film financiers may never voluntarily utilize a system such as this one, but if FilmChain (or similar platforms) become the norm, then staff members on productions that do use this technology would stand to benefit. Film financiers would benefit too as the myriad bank transfers and other international payments they send would become much less expensive as the systems become automatic and tech-enabled.

FilmChain won’t be implemented overnight. But it and similar projects surely present a hopeful future. Anyone who has ever been screwed over by a shady financier or producer, or even has just waited far too long to get paid for freelance work, stands to gain if blockchain technology is implemented into the film business. 

 

 

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

The Berlinale: A film festival experience like no other.

If there is one film festival that I love going to, it is the Berlinale. Yes, Berlin is absolutely freezing in the winter, but it is also incredibly cozy. There is a je ne sais quoi about Berlin that I frequently try and fail to put my finger on. First off, it is incredibly less expensive than most other European cities. This means that you can live a bit of a high life for a few days while there. The films I saw, including The Lost City of Z and Viceroy's House, were of course among the best in the world. The film market, was also buzzing with people from all over the world who want to buy the world's best films. And, of course, the parties at night are unlike any other. From the BFI to various Polish parties I attended, a few days in Berlin is just as good as going to a warm, sunny place. 

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As IndieWire writes, "As ever, the annual fest is playing home to dozens of feature films and short offerings, with picks aplenty from both modern masters and fresh faces. The Berlinale often breeds some of indie film’s most unexpected and unique standouts, so if it’s at the fest, it’s likely worth a look."

My favorite documentary at the festival was For Ahkeem, about an African-American girl growing up in St. Louis. Shot over many years, the film highlights many of the struggles of growing up in America. The Berlin Film Journal writes, "For Ahkeem follows Daje Shelton, a young seventeen-year-old girl who is struggling to find her way in a social environment enriched by a feeling of cultural failure and the constant struggle that accompanies the process of dreaming for a better life. At the beginning of the film Daje makes a statement: “People been labelling me a bad kid all my life. You don’t have to really do nothing, people just expect it. So you start to expect it yourself.”

It continues, "By claiming this, Daje sets the tone for the documentary, making the audience aware that her story is unique but also part of a bigger picture of what being young and left behind means. The film begins at the moment Daje gets expelled from school and sent to a court-supervised high school, which is her last opportunity to graduate and get her degree. It’s painful to witness fight -or-flight survival mode Daje can’t seem to escape, however by following her in a conscientious, intimate way, the documentary makes an important point about the cultural trauma of what it means to grow up in a world where it is very likely that you will be shot before you reach adulthood."