Posted by: sibyllemeder | September 15, 2009

The First Cut Is The Deepest

Does that headline sound like beginner’s angst?

I’m a newcomer to documentary, I admit it freely, my only foray into this form so far being a five-minute piece titled “Amazing Lace” that would comfortably run under the “mockumentary” label – but, nevertheless, managed to grab a “Best Doc” nomination at the festival it was aimed at. Seems like I copied the form well. If there was such a thing!

No wonder I am excited about my first “real” documentary edit! It’s so different to the planned out and well-thought out material of a fiction film.

Of course also with fiction, there are improvisational things, there are whole takes, whole set-ups that mightn’t have been envisioned at the beginning of the day. But unless you’re Fellini, you’ve at least got the idea of the story and its different scenes fairly firmly set up before you shoot – and even more so once it gets around to the edit.

(That said: I’d love to shoot like Fellini one day, assembling a bunch of wonderful actors and simply setting them free in a curious set to play a story I might not even have developed myself yet. Sounds like a brilliant collaborative work.)

Now, here I sit, with my first two hours of documentary material. Its story could be simple: the caique leaves the harbour at sun-down, the fishermen lay out five nets, return to the shore. In the morning, everyone comes back and has a look at the catch…which is none too rich. The start of a story. But there are so many different tunes you can play that whole thing in!

Between tape log sheets and meticulous notes on shot size and action, I couldn’t help but put together a rough first assembly of the evening trip. I haven’t even covered everything I want to shoot yet. Interviews are still missing. Additional material is still missing. But it’s too tempting. It’s work in progress.

There is one whole sequence filmed in one go, partly because it was easier for me since I had to hold on to something while the little boat rocked in the waves and wasn’t able to change my position much anyway.

When I looked at it, I found it could be the backbone of the edit. Cut out a few seconds here, tighten it there. Supplement some shot with close-ups – there it was. Smooth, right timing, right structure, everything felt classic – only the immediacy was missing. The moment I had cut away from Stelios’s anguished face as he tries to hold the tiller tight while his brother is balancing on the bow to gets the net over-board, the tension was gone. Too mechanical. Maybe.

So here I am. Back to the drawing board. Maybe.

I suppose, there will be a few more first cuts.

Of course there will be. There will be plenty more material. So who knows whether this will really be the first scene, anyway?

I guess it would rather have to be: the first cut is the one most repeated… (Repeat as often as necessary or until adviced differently by your GP or pharmacist…or something to that effect.)



  1. Hi Sibylle

    hope the edit isn’t bogging you down too much. Sometimes stepping away and coming back elicits more breakthroughs!

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