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  • Writer's pictureRobert Tate

Editing a Vérité Documentary

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

[For this post, vérité means filming something that would be happening even if the camera was not there, with minimal direction as if the camera were a “fly on the wall.”]

Vérité documentary editing requires a thorough knowledge of the raw footage, a good sense of storytelling, and – most importantly – a genuine curiosity about the characters involved. Even though the documentary’s subjects are real people with real lives, you cannot possibly show their lives with total objectivity. By treating them as characters in the story you are telling, you can reveal a more profound truth: what is going on and why? Remember, this is not journalism, which strives for objective accuracy; this is storytelling, which strives for character arcs, emotional revelations, and dramatic irony.

Patricia Field, Daphne Rubin-Vega, David Dalrymple sitting at table
Moments: Aversion of the eyes, nudge and smile, turn of the head. (from Happy Clothes: a film about Patricia Field, Directed by Michael Selditch)

When I start editing a scene in a vérité documentary, I watch all the raw footage from that scene. I mark the requisite plot points and individual beats, but I also mark every moment that evokes in me some kind of emotional tingle – that aversion of the eyes, that nudge and a smile, her turn of the head, and his hesitation before walking away – moments that, when woven into the final edit, can reveal the inner workings of a character.

Don’t let your own biases hobble the characters or the story. Expand your mind enough to discern and appreciate motivations different from yours. If their talents lay in fields you know little about, research those fields. If their moral boundaries push the limits of your own, set your limits aside. You are the driver of these characters, but you don’t have to play nice. You can crash them into walls or back them into conflict with each other. Because you are curious about how they tick, you respect and present their conflicting arguments boldly but honestly. Conflict is the essence of good storytelling; it should be present in every scene.

Give your scene a dramatic structure that the raw footage invariably lacks. Life tends to loop back on itself. People repeat themselves or come to conclusions before explaining how they got there. They drop conversational threads only to pick them up later. They often say things that reveal themselves more than they realize. Find the essence of the argument, hone it, and emphasize how it develops over the course of the scene. Give the scene structure by building it toward something, the moment when a character’s perspective changes, for example.

Consider when and how you reveal information. Can an otherwise mundane element of a scene elevate it based on when you decide to show it? Of course! For example, a scene in a piece I edited shows a couple meeting for a blind date. The man had booked tickets for the giant Ferris wheel in Baltimore, unaware that his date is afraid of heights. They meet in front of the wheel, and I could have effectively used a shot of it looming large behind the couple to establish their location. Instead, I chose to hold off on revealing the wheel until about a minute into the scene when the man says to his date, “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.” Boom! I cut to the Ferris Wheel as his date says, “Oh my God, that is high.” Suddenly, the stakes are raised.

The final scene should be one that is fun to watch, builds on itself, hones in on all the characters’ motivations, and remains true to the story, not as it OBJECTIVELY happened, but as it would have happened if all of life were a well-told tale..

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