What Igloolik filmmakers taught me about video editing

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I am in the plane flying over treeless brown land, with speckles of white, which turn into larger spots of white, finally swallowing the brown under a white northern blanket stretching as far as I can see from my little plane window. I grew up reading Jack London’s the ‘Call of the Wild’, and in those early years I admit I felt a certain call to that vast world where humans played by the uncompromising rules of nature. But I still sometimes can’t believe that many years later, I find myself on a small plane, chewing on a chicken wrap toward Igloolik, a little island close to the North-East part of Baffin Island.

We land in Igloolik, and I recognize the airport and the feeling of home comes to me. But it is only my second time here. I get picked up in a white truck, and we drop off my big load of bags in the office. It is completely bright out and I ask my colleagues, the Inuit who are picking me up, how dark does it get at night. “This is the darkest that it gets”. I am ecstatic!!!

In the next few days I am in the honeymoon of being here. My mind feels at ease and relaxed, and I feel happy even just walking down the street. I am not ignorant of the fact that this will probably change, and that there might be some challenging moments to come, but I enjoy the feeling that comes with a certain sense of freedom and fluidity that exists here.

Part of the ease and happiness comes from the open door at the place where I am staying, where people stop by for visits unannounced. It reminds me of my next door neighbours in our apartment building in Sofia, just coming in without knocking. Another part comes from the knowledge that while I am here for work, the pace will not be defined by the almost robotic productivity of the South. I can be much more myself and true to my own or the group’s rhythm, a luxury denied to me in most other work environments. I can ease off from the stress that I normally feel and focus on what is actually happening.

I am here to help with the editing of a TV series. I have been trying to support the editing of the Igloolik team from the office in Montreal, but the distance, the cultural differences, and the slow Northern internet has made the process tiresome. This will give us a chance to organize ourselves better and work together face to face.

Before coming I was specifically tackling the editing of one episode. I knew it was not working, but I did not know how to make it work. I had an illuminating conversation with Norman Cohn, one of the founders of the company, a non-Inuk. He said that the difference between the Southern editing style and the Isuma/Northern editing style is that, in the South, you show a few short cuts, giving the illusion of what happened. You construct reality and in a way you manipulate the audience. In the North they film what actually happens, if you are making a harpoon you are filmed doing it. The camera observes it closely, and when editing you show the long shot of making of the harpoon where the audience feels like a participant, and as if they are experiencing the event first hand. This made things click for me. The truth is that in my own work I also film and edit in the style described as Northern, well at least I did originally.

Many things had happened, that had slowly undermined my confidence in that approach. Trying to pitch my films to broadcasters, who call what you are creating ‘content’, and even though some are supportive, ultimately they want the ‘content’ to keep people watching their channel until the next commercial. The question shifts from what you are trying to show to how to keep the audience hooked. Then you are told things like: “This is female storytelling, and it is not getting funded. We need more conflict…” I am still making sense of the ignorance behind this sentence, but it does make you feel that the way you see the world is fundamentally flawed. So you consciously or subconsciously try to manipulate your own perspective. On top of that you live in a media saturated world where you are bombarded daily by slick and fast editing, where 30 seconds to 3 minute videos tackle big subjects from racial discrimination to brain chemistry. You see how fast cuts are seductive. You know that we are being conditioned to read slogans, process information as fast as possible and move on. We get the concept and move onto the next thing. Who has time to really participate, to watch, to experience. You also stop having time.

Being hired to edit and work with the Isuma collective, I found myself slipping into the Southern editing style. I had unconsciously decided that this is what good editing looks like. Cut a few shots to show that the hunters had a meeting. Cut a few shots to show that people were camping….I was editing for appearance, and getting away from the essence of the material. I wanted it to look a certain way, and was glancing over what had actually happened. However, life in the North has a certain immediacy, a certain rawness. You can not completely hide from the elements. You hunt, catch a seal, sometimes kill it with your own hands, then cut it and eat it. After that you skin it, you treat the skin and make an outfit that will keep you warm for your next seal hunt. Life is not as packaged and mediated like it is in the South. Video editing in a mediated way does not really fit here. It seems natural to edit as a participant. And you have the time to let yourself and the audience experience your material. In traditional Inuit culture you learn by observation, so watching closely is very important, as the skills you need are absorbed by watching and experiencing. Judging by the success of Inuit filmmaking, even in our Southern fast paced media saturated world, there is a hunger for this kind of films and experiences.

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