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Taking a Plunge

Renowned US filmmaker and editor Jonathan Oppenheim was among the tutors of the second session of Ex Oriente Film that took place June 13 - 19, 2011 in Prague. We discussed the complexities of Laura Poitras's The Oath, the misunderstood worth of documentary film, power balance in the editing room, three of his favourite films, and more...


Taking a Plunge: An Interview with Jonathan Oppenheim
June 16, 2011 / Ex Oriente Film, Prague
Jana Kadrevis


Jonathan Oppenheim
Jonathan Oppenheim's editing credits include Sister Helen (Documentary Directing Award, Sundance); Children Underground (also co-producer, Oscar nomination, Sundance Special Jury Prizee, Gotham and IDA awards); the classic documentary feature Paris Is Burning (Sundance Grand Jury Prize, New York Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics and IDA Awards); Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love, about the African singer's attempt to transmit moderate Islam through music; Out of the Shadow (PBS), about a woman’s life with her paranoid schizophrenic mother; Caught in the Crossfire (PBS), a cinema verite look at three Arab-American New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11; Phyllis and Harold, an exploration of a failed 60-year marriage; Strongman (co-editor, 2009 Slamdance Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature); Arguing The World (Peabody Award, along with producer/director Joseph Dorman). Most recently, Oppenheim edited and co-produced The Oath, a highly acclaimed portrait of Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard.


JK: When an editor has plenty of material to work with, sometimes they probably sculpt away material to uncover a story that’s already there. I imagine that The Oath worked differently in this sense because you said you didn’t have too much material. So how did you find the key to present this particular story?

JO: It was actually the most unusual experience I’ve ever had working on a film because, particularly since the advent of digital, people shoot enormous amounts of material – 300 hours is standard now. And we sort of hoped for something like that. And when we didn’t get it and continued not to get it, we  finally realized we were going to have to make do with what we had. So in a way, what happened was that I came to the basic structure pretty early on because there was so little material that it became clear we had to hold back certain important things, otherwise there wouldn’t have been anywhere to go in the story.

If we’d had important things up early in the film, like the fact that Abu Jandal had been in prison and successfully interrogated by the FBI, then there wouldn’t have been a way to tell a full and complex story about Abu Jandal. And this understanding happened early in the process while I was just assembling it. I just kept saying - Well, the interrogation is not gonna go here, it’s not gonna go here... Finally, there it was at the end of this assembly, and there it stayed, and there was no new influx of material to change the basic structure.

So from then on, the way I worked really was to spend a long time trying to understand the transitions. Scenes didn’t get moved around very much, and, when they did, it was almost like moving something in a narrative script. It was like: “Oh wow, we’ve moved something, that’s amazing!” So really it was a question of making the transitions come alive and understanding the juxtapositions of scenes and how those things really worked. It was a sort of a micro process rather than a macro process.  And it was fascinating to experience that kind of difference and sometimes it was very frustrating. Often you didn’t think you were making any progress because there was so little shuffling and movement of material.


You mentioned in your presentation that when you do the initial viewing of the material, your response is more visceral than rational. Is it sometimes a balancing act for you as an editor to reconcile the the two types of reactions to the footage?

For me, it’s actually... I would say that the visceral responses feed a systematic appraisal, that’s how I would put it. And because I’m interested in underlying themes and structure, sometimes I get very emotionally excited about things that are actually structural or that might be a very key component of structure. So I don’t feel that the visceral and rational are at odds. I would say that what’s important about the visceral is that it stays with you because you actually experience it in your body and therefore it goes into your unconscious in a certain way. But I don’t see them as at odds, I see that one is sort of feeding the other.


Abu Jandal really baffles audiences but the film resists to point us in any particular direction. You just keep reeling the audience in and then breaking their expectations with more contexts and more contradictions...

I feel there is a tendency for people to want resolutions in stories, for things to be neat, clean and satisfying. And his story could never ever be that and we never tried to make it that. In fact we tried to go with the contradictions and to just let them live, that was our intention. We felt it was actually the fairest thing to do because we didn’t really know the answer to who he was.


That’s refreshing because it makes the film anti-ideological.

Yeah, exactly. The other thing I would say on a simpler level is that we have prejudice about terrorists. We don’t see them as human beings, we see them as monsters. And I think that the possiblity of showing this guy who is a devotee of Bin Laden - to see him as a father, as somebody who’s driving a taxi and bargaining and showing other faces of him... having a picnic with his wife and Hamdan’s wife. I think that that was such an important layer to have in order to shake up the expectations of an audience that might expect a monster. On the other hand, of course, maybe he is a monster. Maybe somebody can be a good father and a monster.  We attempted to paint a complex picture and raise questions.


The two characters and their environments are clearly juxtaposed, Hamdan inhabits the world of quiet despair, inertia, with the shots of prison buildings accompanied by a superb, brooding musical score, while Abu Jandal seems always on the run, both in his elusive eloquence and his physical movement as he’s driving his taxi... How important is rhythm and music for you? How do you work with them?

I see content driving rhythm. I’m not interested in rhythm except as it amplifies the content in some way. Rhythm by itself is just rhythm. I really like working with music. None of the music was composed for the film, it was all previously written pieces by Osvaldo Golijov which he said we could use.


And it was your choice what to use and where to place it...

Yeah, it was my choice where to put it and what to put... Sometimes I even layered two parts of one piece on top of each other or changed the rhythm of the piece. So I worked it a lot. I really like to work with music just that way. I don’t enjoy working with music composed to picture. I feel like you can get a lot more mileage out of it if you find the right music, preferably with a composer who is either giving you random cues, - not cues composed to picture - or working with somebody’s previously composed music if it’s appropriate. In this case it was. It’s really a great way to work. But I’ve also worked on films that had absolutely no music, like Children Underground - there was not a note in it. it would have been wrong for the film.


On the other hand, Paris Is Burning was already filled with music...

Paris Is Burning does have a few montages in it but there’s so much music in the balls that you basically don’t need to put music over it. Outside of the end credits, there are two montages that have an overlay of music. Basically, it’s just going from this situation to that situation and the music was in the shots. In the case of The Oath, it was really like trying to lay an emotional groundwork. It’s great to be able to do that, it’s a lot of fun. It’s  the pleasure of exploring the possibilities of creating a feeling on film.


Do you feel that documentaries these days tend to overuse music to elicit emotions?

Ahh, so much! I feel music shouldn’t be telling you what to feel. If it’s used to tell you what to feel, it’s wrong. I know of many documentaries that are wall-to-wall music. I feel like music is a great tool but it should go against your expectations and not just pander to the most obvious thing. Obviously you’re dealing with feeling but it’s a question of how you do it. I think a lot of documentaries way, way overuse music. And in a way I think that it’s a lack of confidence in the material.


It becomes an extra crutch...

Yeah, you need to make sure the audience is really getting it.

I want to go back to the important scenes in The Oath where you refused to delete Abu Jandal’s statement. I understand that it served to directly show Abu Jandal’s contradictions but was it also turning the tables on him on your part as the filmmakers? That this time, you would not take part in the manipulations and ally yourself more with the audience. Was it also meant to build more connection with the audience?

I like your interpretation. Ultimately it had to do with the feeling that shedding light on his contradictions was actually critical to understanding Abu Jandal. I think that that was really the ultimate purpose. And this was too important a subject to simply not try and do that every chance we could get. However, we did agonize over it and we argued about it.


Was it skirting the issue of betraying the trust of your protagonist?

Yes, that was exactly it. It was a question of journalistic ethics and a question of betrayal. That was the battle. We argued and talked about it for months, we got a lot of different kinds of advice and ultimately it stayed in.  When Abu Jandal saw the film he seemed to really like it and had no issue with this section.¨


So in a way, this became one of the many oaths that are at stake in the film.

There are just so many of them, so many oaths. There’s the the formal oath to bin Laden, there’s the FBI agent who swore an oath, there’s the moment when Abu Jandal says to a guy in the taxi - “It’ll be 200 as long as you swear to God that it’s true...”   A lot of oaths.


Considering the obvious complexity of The Oath, do you consciously stay away from more clear-cut, issue-driven stories..?

I do stay away from them.

Is there such thing as activist editors in documentary film?

There are definitely some editors who work primarily on political films, mostly in New York. I believe in conveying political reality but I believe it should be approached through the personal, which is kind of how The Oath is approaching it. So that it becomes less clear and there’s more to think about. I don’t really like advocacy films, I find them boring. They don’t work for me, I’m not stirred, I’m not shaken. I prefer films where the intention is to render complexity.


Do issue-driven documentaries have a lot to do with the growing popularity of documentary film? Do US funders prefer this type of documentary films?

Funders do prefer this type of film. In the US, you usually can’t get funding for a cultural subject, you have to go to private investors for that. This is because there’s now less money to go around. Instead of five ways, the pie is divided one way. There’s just one piece of pie. And that pie is issue-oriented. The idea is that documentaries have to prove their worth. To be worthy, they have to be helping somebody, saving a situation, on the right side, on the side of the angels. That is the funding reality right now. This bespeaks a misapprehension about the role and nature of documentary film; that it doesn’t have value as an art form but only as journalistic advocacy.


And do creative documentaries get a fair share of TV time in the US? Or do issue-driven films get preferential treatment again?

They do get broadcast. It’s actually easier for them to get a broadcast than to get funding. I’m editing a documentary about a theatre director, Andre Gregory who was in the film My Dinner with Andre by Louis Malle. Funding to date is all from private investors. There are some foundations that are interested but they seem to be much more culturally oriented foundations, pan-arts, across the arts, and not just film. But basically I think that when this film is finished, it’s not gonna be such a leap for it to get aired as it would to get it funded. So I don’t know what that speaks to but I think it’s true.


What may be some of the general stumbling blocks or dangers for the participants of Ex Oriente Film and their projects at this stage? What should they be careful to do or not to do at this stage?

Many of the projects are really in development in the sense that relatively little shooting has been done. And I hear some directors saying about what they’ve shot, “This is research footage, this isn’t what the film will look like, this won’t be in the film.” I think that the pitfall might be that you keep doing research shooting and it keeps you mentally from from the place where you say, “I’m shooting the film now.” In America, the idea of shooting for research doesn’t exist. Really, I’ve never heard it before. So I think that that’s really interesting, it’s a whole different mindset.


Is it a lot slower work process here..?

I think in America, everything is grist for the mill and once you start shooting, it’s just all gonna get thrown into the pot. It’s like, you’re not gonna make a pot of spaghetti and throw out half the spaghetti. You’re gonna put all the spaghetti in the pot and boil it and then make sauce. So I feel that the idea of research shooting doesn’t really.... In a way, to me it reads as uncertainty, as not wanting to put both feet in the water. I feel like that’s maybe an experience thing, I don’t know… or perhaps it reflects the way films are funded here. But there’s a certain way in which when you make these documentaries, you have to take a plunge. And either you’re plunging into the shooting... I once co-directed a documentary that wasn’t finished for various reasons, about this activist broadcast journalist Amy Goodman. It was right around the time of the invasion of Iraq, in fact it was like four days before the invasion that we got the idea. We had wanted to make a film about Iraq through the lense of a radical journalist. We met her, sort of accosted her at a public event and told her what we wanted to do. We came in to her studio on Monday, we started shooting on Tuesday, the invasion was on Wednesday and we ended up shooting 250 hours. We were not funded when we began but tape was cheap. So there’s a sense that you have to just dive. Obviously you have to think things through, and we  obviously didn’t give ourselves enough time  for that. But the invasion was upon us.

And with editing also, you have to plunge in, you have to start cutting scenes, make an assembly even it’s horrifying to you. Sometimes it is. It’s like – “How can I do this...I don’t know what to do, where to begin” - you have to walk into the darkness. So my fear about the term research shooting is that maybe that is your shooting, maybe it is a building block of your film and it needs to be thought of that way. And that’s another mindset that might push the process forward.


All that said, were there any projects that grabbed your attention?

There were projects that jumped off the page and there were projects that didn’t. I felt that Good Night, White Pride was very clear. Clarity is important when reading proposals. There were two characters that were talked about, I understood their positions, I understood the context. It was pretty clear and interesting. I think that there are some other projects that are doing something that’s very elusive and difficult and it’s harder to write about, particularly in English if it’s not your language. And I think those projects are harder on the page but actually coming here and seeing them, I had a totally different relationship to them. And I’ve told them: “I really didn’t get your project when I was reading about it but having seen the trailer and heard you talk about it, I got it.” So I think part of it is having to work in English and that the evolution of the project is not necessarily reflected in the English expression of it on the page. And part of it is that the subject may be somewhat elusive on the page. Good Night, White Pride was a project that actually worked on both levels.


With more experience and credit, with more awards to your name, has the way you cooperate with directors changed compared to the beginning of your career? Do you feel you have more leverage in the process now?

I do. I do feel I have more leverage. And I don’t take projects where I don’t have leverage. There may be such projects but I don’t want to work on them because it wouldn’t be satisfying to me. Like I said the other day, I feel like the editor and the director are both wielding different kinds of power in the editing room. And if that power is usurped by one or the other, it becomes a very problematic situation. That power balance is very important for the health of the film. So I want to work in situations where that balance of power is respected.

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Films on My Mind - Jonathan Oppenheim also kindly gave a list of three films that have impacted him in some way. Films on My Mind are not restricted to any particular genre, they may be tried and true classics as well as current, ad-hoc favourites.

1 The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, USA 1949)
Everything about it is great. The way it’s shot, the script, the performances, the end, the whole setup. I’ve probably seen it like fifteen times. There are certain films I could just watch over and over again and The Third Man is  one of them.

2 Splendor in the Grass (dir. Elia Kazan, USA 1961)
It’s just an absolutely killing story about a star-crossed love affair of two teenagers. This stays with me as a great and painful movie.

3 The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, USA 2011)
This is film that encompasses a family drama as well the creation of the universe. It works on the feelings, it opens up a current of pure feeling that never stops. The family story is told utterly elliptically but with  enormous psychological clarity and truth. I’ve never seen a film that works quite this way.


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