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Production

Documentary Editing on “The Dissident” with Wyatt Rogowski and Avner Shiloah

Two of the editors on Bryan Fogel's new documentary "The Dissident" discuss the ins and outs of the ambitious project.

January 19, 2021

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Our guests Wyatt Rogowski and Avner Shiloah take us through the process of editing Bryan Fogel’s ambitious new documentary film, “The Dissident”. From editing in three languages to creating incredible animated sequences, this team really had their work cut out for them.  

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, Production - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the Shift In Conversation podcast here.

 

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Wyatt Rogowski - Editor - “The Dissident”
Avner Shiloah - Editor - “The Dissident” 
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - Shift

Grace:
For those who haven’t seen “The Dissident”, can you give us an overview of the film?

Avner:
It's quite literally an investigation into the death of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Saudi Arabian journalist who worked for the Washington Post and was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. So the film is first and foremost an examination of what happened to lead to that event and what happened on that day, in the immediate aftermath, as well as a study of who Jamal Khashoggi was and what led him to that moment. Beyond that it also follows his fiance, Hatice Cengiz, who was with him that day outside the consulate. As well as a friend of his Omar Abdulaziz who is a Saudi dissident and they were collaborating together. So those are the three people that the documentary kind of focuses on and tells their story.

Grace:
Talk me through your workflow as a documentary editor on a film of this size and scope.

Wyatt:
First of all, this was the largest documentary as far as crew and as far as topic I've ever worked on. Whether it’s a large crew like this, or if it was just myself and the director, the process can kind of start the same. It really starts with creating a story map and the story beats. With documentary editing, you’re kind of one of the writers because you’re forming the story afterwards. On this film we worked closely with Mark Monroe, the writer. He formulated the story beats and basically an arc for the whole film. I like to say documentary editing is almost like having a sculpture. You start off with a big mound of clay and the first rough cut is just figuring out what the shape is. Then slowly as you keep going, you keep refining. You get to the point where you have your fine cut, and it’s like you can see the lines of the face. Then you get to the lock cut and it’s a beautiful sculpture, but it’s still plain. And then you get to the finishing process with color and sounds, and that’s where you do the paint and it looks beautiful. 

I like to say documentary editing is almost like having a sculpture. You start off with a big mound of clay and the first rough cut is just figuring out what the shape is. Then slowly as you keep going, you keep refining.

Grace:
As an editor, how do you deal with footage that is not in English and needs to be translated? 

Avner:
So much of the film is in Arabic, as well as Turkish, so we actually had to edit the movie in three different languages. Part of the general process for most documentaries these days is that every interview is transcribed and you work off of those transcriptions in order to build that skeleton that Wyatt mentioned. The translation is just one element of it, but we also needed a crew around us of people who actually apple these languages. We had a team of associate producers, both Turkish and Arabic speaking, and they really helped us shape this and put these interviews together. 

Wyatt:
And I would also add that sometimes we wanted to condense a sentence or condense a long bite for a scene, it’s called “Franken-biting”. You chop up the clip and take a word from here and a word from there to make a more clear sentence. For things like tone and inflection, we have zero idea. Sometimes I would do an edit on paper of what we wanted them to say, and then give that to one of our researchers and translators and they would help string out a proper sentence. 

Grace:
There are three distinct types of footage in this film — interviews, archival footage, and VFX sequences. Can you talk about how you had to treat all of these different types of footage differently?

Avner:
So the first group that we have is the shot footage that was shot by the production, which we can probably divide into interviews and vérité footage — vérité meaning that we are actually following along some of our subjects as they are experiencing things. So for instance, Jamal’s fiance Hatice maybe addresses European parliament or the UN. To me personally, that’s always some of the most engaging footage, for an audience it’s very visceral. The other aspect is the interviews, which is kind of the backbone of everything. The interviews are telling you the story. The big challenge for this is that we didn’t have any vérité footage with Jamal Khashoggi, who is one of the main subjects of the film. So our trick was to find as much archival footage of him as possible and try to create these emotional moments and draw his personality through those. What we needed to do was to bring Jamal to life through this footage. Otherwise, archival footage is usually there to support the facts that you’re trying to communicate. It tends to be a little bit less emotional, a little bit less immediate. It was always like digging for treasure in terms of these archival moments of Jamal, and trying to make them as engaging as the vérité footage.

The big challenge for this is that we didn’t have any vérité footage with Jamal Khashoggi. So our trick was to find as much archival footage of him as possible . . . to bring Jamal to life through this footage.

Wyatt:
For the VFX, Bryan was looking for one of the editors to be more VFX focused. I can mess around with After Effects and do some small stuff myself, but I’m not very talented with 3D programs. There’s a ton of graphics in this film, and we eventually brought on an agency, The Office of Design and Development (ODD) from New York, and I worked closely with them. So I would do really rough Avid graphics just to show exactly the placement of things on the screen and how it should all work, trying to envision that myself. And then I would send it to ODD. There’s everything from newspaper graphics all the way to an entire Pixar-level film right in the middle of the film. It was an adventure, but it was fun and we made it all happen. 

Grace:
You are two of a team of four editors that worked on this film, what is it like to work collaboratively on an editing team like that?

Avner:
The other two editors on the film were James Leche and Scott Hanson, two brilliant editors as well. This was pre-pandemic, so we were fortunate enough to all be in the same office and collaborate together. Very quickly it was a situation where we were all in the trenches together, we have very little time to execute this and we’re all on the same team. Let’s just make the best movie we can and have each other’s back. Mark, the writer, would have the marching orders for the week to get this story beat done or this scene done, and he would assign one to each of us. So each of us would take a first pass at something, and then usually continue on that scene for the second and third pass as well. But occasionally another editor would ask to take a crack at it. And this is where it’s really useful to check your ego at the door, and let them go ahead and do it. The goal is always to make the best movie we can, it’s not about any one of us shining through – it’s about just serving the narrative. It’s also useful to have that sounding board of the other three editors, and be very honest with each other. It’s so helpful to the creative process to have people that you trust and who know what the process is. When you are the single editor working in a vacuum, sometimes it gets really difficult to know if you are on the right track. 

The goal is always to make the best movie we can, it’s not about any one of us shining through – it’s about just serving the narrative.

Grace:
What was the collaboration like between you and the director, Bryan Fogel? 

Wyatt:
The relationship between director and editor is completely different on every film. I’ve had films where the director is over your shoulder telling you exactly when to cut, which can be good for the vision of the film but at the same time can be a little bit much. Bryan was actively out directing the film while we were editing, but he was always there to give us his input and help us on the way. He gave all the editors a lot of agency and he trusted us, and Mark, a lot. It was definitely a collaborative process. Bryan has a very specific style, he always said it’s kind of like a “Jason Bourne” type of film, even in a documentary. From the very first scene you’re feeling that tension and that energy, all the way until the end. 

Grace:
How do elements like sound design and music get added into the edit? Are you working with that right from the beginning, or is it all added later?

Avner:
The quick answer is, we're not working in a vacuum. We can’t afford to wait until we’re in the finishing process to add either music or sound design, we have to tackle those ahead. And it goes hand-in-hand with the construction of the scene. You might begin just working on what we call a “radio edit”, which is just the sound from the footage and the interview bites, but pretty quickly you have to incorporate music and sound design into that. The common practice is to start off with what we call temp music, which is music from different types of scores that seem appropriate for the tone of the film or the tone of any specific scene that we’re working on. We were fortunate to have our composer, Adam Peters, on board early on, so he was able to come in and discuss tone with us. He handed us a large folder of demos, from past projects and pieces he had lying around, so we could work with those and incorporate those in. That makes his job a little easier when he has to come in and finally score the final film.

We can’t afford to wait until we’re in the finishing process to add either music or sound design, we have to tackle those ahead. And it goes hand-in-hand with the construction of the scene.

Wyatt:
To piggyback off that, the music and the sound design in general can really help tell you if the scene is going to work. If you have no sound design it can feel very bland and blank, you don’t feel the energy of it. Especially if you’re trying to make it a thriller, for it to be successful you need all of those elements to be in there. For sound design, every editor usually works with a big library of different sound effects. Especially for the big animation sequences, if there was no sound design then you wouldn’t feel like you’re actually in it. With vérité footage, you have natural sound that makes you feel like you’re there. For VFX we need to build it from the ground up. Let’s say there’s a tiny little animated battle scene with the bees and the flies, every single little tiny leg that hits the ground needs it’s own little sound. You can have tons and tons of tracks for just one second of footage, it’s pretty crazy. 

Avner:
And this is just our preliminary work, when it’s in the final sound mix that's when our partners at Skywalker take it and kick it up a notch. They really elevate it because they know what they’re doing, so what ends up on screen is of a higher quality than what we deal with, but we still try to do the best we can. And it’s pretty fun. 

Grace:
How did your opinion of this subject and these events change as you were working on the film, and what do you hope the audience will take away from the film when they see it?

Wyatt:
So I generally didn't have too much knowledge on the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, so this has taught me a lot. Especially with the history of Saudi and the US’s relationship. I’d say the main takeaway is for the audience to really see the human rights abuses in the world. Bryan brought on the Human Rights Foundation to be a sponsor of the film, and it really sheds light on certain regimes and governments in the world. For governments to look past these human rights abuses and for the audience to actually see that, and think about these things when it comes to voting in the next round of leadership.

I just hope that people come away with more of an understanding of the actual people who were involved in this, who are more than just a headline or a statistic. Jamal was a real person with aspirations and dreams whose life was cut short.

Avner:
I had some knowledge of the region and some idea of what happened with Jamal, but I was shocked to find how blatant the evidence and the actions of Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia were. The other thing that’s very surprising is how complicit the Western governments are in their relationship with Saudi Arabia. What I would want an audience to come away with is basically that we need to hold our elected officials to task for how they treat this government and other governments. No matter which party it is, all different administrations throughout US history have been very complicit in the behavior of Saudi Arabia. Whoever the leadership is has to be held accountable for what they do. Beyond that, I just hope that people come away with more of an understanding of the actual people who were involved in this, who are more than just a headline or a statistic. Jamal was a real person with aspirations and dreams whose life was cut short. Hatice, his fiance, was left with this emptiness, this has defined the rest of her life. Omar is a Saudi dissident who can never go home again because of this regime. And he will always live in fear that they will try to do the same thing to him as they did to Jamal. These are real people who are affected by these horrible actions, I hope audiences come away being touched by that aspect. 

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information. 

Grace Amodeo is a Content Marketing Manager at Shift. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
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