The prospect of working with a language foreign to one’s own would be a daunting challenge for virtually anyone. Yet, Amreeka, in which more than half the language is spoken in Arabic, was an adventure on which editor Keith Reamer was eager to embark. The movie, written and directed by Cherien Dabis, tells the timely story of a middle-aged Palestinian woman who, with her teenage son, immigrates to the U.S. Amreeka chronicles their heartfelt, touching journey in America. Reamer is no stranger to the editing world, having spent more than 20 years editing features, including such acclaimed independent movies as I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Three Seasons (1999).
Just before Amreeka’s big debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, MM spoke with the editor about how he approached such a unique project.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): You cut Amreeka on Avid Adrenaline. Why do you prefer using Avid as opposed to Final Cut Pro?
Keith Reamer (KR): For me, it is really the level of comfort that I enjoy, using Avid software as opposed to FCP. I went from film, in 1995, to the Avid platform and found it very intuitive and an easy match for my film skills. At that time (1995) I’d never even owned a computer, let alone switched one on! I was a complete novice. Yet, from the start, I found working with Avid systems to be organic to my processes and very much like working in film. I’ve cut a few projects on FCP and do not yet feel the same about that platform. I find that it is not as intuitive as Avid and, in its operation, is much more labor intensive—I end up spending much more time navigating the application than simply using the tool as designed. However, having more than one NLE platform to choose from, has helped to even out the playing field in making advanced, highly-evolved post production systems available for many, many individuals and projects with a diverse assortment of resources. It has forced Avid to be price- and feature-competitive and that is a very good thing.
MM: More than half of Amreeka is in Arabic, and you handled all the subtitles as the movie was cut. Did that make the editing process more difficult?
KR: Yes, but fortunately we had a great team, which was lead by our director, Cherien Dabis, who very much knew the film she wanted to make! She was a phenomenal, fun, agile collaborator, bold leader and also fluent in Arabic. Misako Shimizu was our assistant editor during production. She did a great job getting the project up and running in the Avid system. Her role was taken over by Eddie Nichols—a patient, good-humored, hard-working guy—who stayed with the project, through all of its twists and turns, through to the lock.
Of course, working in a language alien to one’s own is always a challenge. I have done it twice before—on Tony Bui’s Three Seasons (Vietnamese) and Ann Hu’s Shadow Magic (Mandarin)—and the complication is always multi-fold. First, there’s the actual translation of the dialogue when you begin screening dailies and working on scenes. Since there is no actual translator in the room, this is accomplished through careful attention to the phonetics of the speech—how words sound, repeated phrases, etc.—as it matches up against the lined script (assuming you have a lined script, which in foreign-shot productions is not always the case). Thank goodness for Avid’s Locator tool! Once these mechanics are done, it is a matter of using one’s intuition to read and evaluate the performances, the subtexts that you feel are at work, or might like to see at work, in each scene and the film as a whole. On Amreeka, I spent a lot of time watching the body language of the actors, watching their eyes, and looking for the spark of invention in the performances; things that crystallized what I believed to be the intent of our director. It is a simple quest for the truth; one that I find to be quite universal—no matter what language the actors are speaking.
Of course, at a certain point after production wraps, the director comes in, and in the case of Amreeka, it was the extraordinary and extraordinarily prepared Cherien Dabis. We continued on, even deeper into the material partially with the insight I’ve gained through working with the footage independently, and of course, everything that Cherien brought to the room as the writer/director (which was a lot!). Cherien and I worked together with the material, molding and refining it, until we reached the end state.
In terms of the subtitles, we began working on them well into the editorial process, after we were fairly happy with the state of the cut. Because the Arab actors took a very individualistic approach to the translation of their dialogue into Arabic, the subtitling itself turned out to be a very creative exercise. We would have sessions—myself, Cherien and our assistant, Eddie Nichols—where we would go through a reel, line by line, using the script as a departure point. At that point, Cherien would work on finding a more accurate translation of what the actors were saying on her own. I would pilot the Avid and offer my opinions as Cherien would translate and Eddie would take notes on the title-content and timing. Later, he would create and place the actual subtitles. At some point, in almost every scene, there would be a point where we would all take a shot at rewording a particularly tricky line or exchange.
Our little translation parties actually became a lot of fun and were relaxing for us all to do together. Eddie would later create a document for each reel, and Cherien would continue to revise the translations, make additions, etc., as we continued to cut. It was a very inventive, fluid process that went on until the picture was locked. Fortunately, the Avid system afforded us the flexibility to continue to make up-to-the-minute changes—it was very accommodating.
All of us wanted the titles to be the best they could be, to be as “finished” as possible—the idea being that they could be ported directly into the online, at Technicolor in Toronto, and later given to the laser titlers for print, thus eliminating some of their translation and spotting costs. Essentially, by holding these “translation parties,” we were able to forge a template for the extensive, complex subtitling of Amreeka that enabled us to save time and money down the line. And it all worked, beautifully. I am grateful that Avid systems make it so easy to customize
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you can offer aspiring film editors?
KR: Edit and edit frequently! Cut whatever you can get your hands on.
Don’t be proud. There is something to be learned from everything and, often the best, most useful skills of resourcefulness can be learned on the roughest material.
Develop your instincts. Try things; play with cutting rhythm, music, sound. Get a sense of what you like. Take things apart, even if only for yourself, rearrange them—learn how things work.
Last but not least, of course, see movies. And not just the ones that have come out in the last five years. Having a bit of a historical perspective on cinema, and the changes in editorial style, is a very useful thing and will put any young editor ahead of the pack. Sources such as Netflix, TCM and the local public library are very good tools for that purpose!
Way back when I was first starting I was, charitably speaking, an under-employed editor. I lacked confidence in my skills. I was frustrated with that, so I came up with a little exercise: Imagining a series of cameras were following my actions as I went about my day (i.e., going to the store, riding the subway, flossing my teeth, etc.). I would cut these scenes in my head daily as I went about my business, always trying to imagine the best angle, the best cut point for every action or non-action.
This exercise helped me, believe it or not, to develop my cutting chops. More importantly, it gave me a place to focus my desire to cut when I wasn’t cutting. It was a little silly, but it was also freeing and that, for any young editor with a desire to invent, is a very, very valuable thing.