Running from the end of May to mid-June, UCL’s Reimagine series offered an exciting collection of short courses, master classes and workshops that encouraged participants to reimagine their future. UCL academic staff, film-makers, writers, digital experts, journalists and other successful industry experts made up the company of speakers and facilitators, offering inspiring insights into their chosen fields.
One of the incredible events of the programme was ‘Transformations: Moving Image Storytelling’, a Q&A event with film industry professionals. The event centred around Life In A Day, a documentary that captures the day of July 25th, 2020 from a global angle. The film followed the Life In A Day that was created in 2010, a documentary of similar form. Over 300,000 videos from 192 countries were submitted to the project, connecting themes of love, death, hope and more. The event aimed to capture the experience of editing this intriguing, captivating film.
The panel was chaired by Kate Stonehill. Kate is an award-winning director and cinematographer whose work has screened internationally at film festivals and galleries including the BFI London Film Festival, Sheffield Doc/Fest, AFI Docs, and DOC NYC. Kate was joined by Mdhamiri Nkemi, a film editor whose work has won awards at festivals such as Sundance, Berlinale, TIFF, SXSW and the London Film Festival, and Nse Asuquo, editor of The Stuart Hall Project, Jazz Ambassadors and House of My Fathers and nominee for the Jules Wright Prize for Female Creative Technicians in 2016. Both Mdhamiri and Nse were involved with the making and editing of Life in a Day.
Kate began by asking what Mdhamiri and Nse were looking to capture within the final film, one that, she notes, was created in a ‘transformative year.’ Nse reflected on how open she was going into the experience and the fact she had no expectations, whilst Mdhamiri knew the film would have an ‘extra layer of impact’ following the international experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mdhamiri spoke of how, in addition to COVID, the wider conversations of the time framed the video submissions they received, and how the recent death of George Floyd became an ‘important thing to talk about’ in the film. It was important, too, that the film did not feel like a collection of films categorized as a list, but that they instead worked to capture ‘the human experience in its essence and have all [the] themes feed into that naturally.’ Kate believes the film strikes a balance between ‘being alive to the time in which it was made’ and the mundane events of ordinary lives that ‘could have been shot at any time.’ Although her world felt very small whilst being confined to her home during the pandemic, the film gave Kate a window into life ‘on the other side of the world.’
The discussion moved onto reflecting on the experience of editing a film without the element of hindsight and instead editing global experiences that were happening in a moment that Nse and Mdhamiri were themselves very much a part of, and whether this was a challenge. Nse agreed that it was challenging, as director Kevin Macdonald didn’t want the film to be a ‘YouTube thing’ but rather wanted people to express what was going on in their lives. Nse also touched on the issue around how to portray the Black Lives Matter protests, as a lot of the footage was of people talking about the protests without being ‘intimately connected’ to it; they entered the theme emotionally through a personal story of someone who was directly affected by the protests.
Kate was interested to know whether any unexpected themes presented themselves in the footage that was received, to which Nse commented on how memory became a dominant theme in the film, as did loneliness; the film captured both the universal and the personal at the same time. Mdhamiri spoke of the database that was developed to enable the team to keep track of the themes that were coming through in the footage, and offered an insight into the process by showcasing the database to the audience; such offered a unique and special window into the editing world of Life in a Day.
Hearing about the editing process was a fascinating element of the event, especially when Nse and Mdhamiri spoke of the challenges they faced during the experience. They referred to a deeply moving, vulnerable and emotional piece of footage of a Scandinavian lady who had miscarried, which spoke to a universal theme of loss; whilst they knew they wanted to put the footage into the film, they struggled to place it amongst the other clips that made up the various montages without disrupting the ‘rhythm’ of the film. This built into another issue which Nse touched upon, of knowing when to move on from an emotion and recognising when the emotions of a particular sequence became ‘diluted’ when ‘[they] had too much.’ Moving deeper into the editing process, Nse also shone a light on how all the editors worked on all the scenes so as to gain a sense of ‘ownership’ of the whole film as well as to prevent anyone feeling ‘precious’ over particular pieces of the work.
Capturing the global nature of the film, an audience member was intrigued by the aspects of language and translation reflected within the film – was there footage of people that held a lot of value visually but who spoke a language that was difficult to source a translator for? Mdhamiri said nothing was impossible, but some footage was ‘very hard’ to translate. Referencing the scene with the Mongolian school children, Nse added that, with certain clips, the visual element was enough for the audience to gain an understanding of what was going on, thus language was not an indefinite barrier.
When asked whether they had learnt anything about editing through the experience of Life in a Day, Nse reflected on the ‘humbling’ nature of the film-making process and how she both loves and hates it simultaneously; it is a process of constant questioning and constant learning, as well as the difficulty of being aware of the detail and the broader picture at the same time. For Nse, the experience was a ‘privilege’, and she spoke of how she did not feel she had the ‘right to hear these intimate stories from people.’ Mdhamiri agreed, commenting on how ‘special’ the opportunity was and the rare experience of gaining an ‘insight into humanity.’ Whilst having experience in documentary work before Life in a Day, this was Mdhamiri’s first experience of working with a feature documentary, an experience that involved accepting the reality that one person could not watch all the material they received and ‘having to surrender to that.’
Moving on to discuss what they each look for as editors, Mdhamiri referenced the footage that provoked an emotional reaction and that featured people who you wanted to spend time with, as well as those that offered a narrative journey that the audience could follow. Nse reflected on the ‘intuitive’ nature of editing; it has to be something you feel. Part of the process is being able to understand what is being ‘revealed’ rather than just that which is being ‘shown.’ Nse also added that this process reveals a lot about oneself, as you have to question ‘Do I understand things just on a surface level or do I look deeper?’
The panel turned to the audience’s thoughts, one of whom asked whether the editors think about the stories within the footage today and do they wonder how the people they met through the footage are doing. Both editors said they do, and Mdhamiri commented on the virtual cast screening that brought together many of the people who featured in the film, which sounded like a phenomenal experience to virtually meet the participants that had become part of their work.
Another audience member asked about the editors’ favourite stories, both of those that made the final cut and those that did not. For Nse, the footage of an ex-marine speaking about PTSD gave a moving insight into his ‘vulnerabilities’, in addition to the birth sequence at the opening of the film, a sequence that also resonated with Kate and, most likely, the wider audience. Of the ‘endless gold mine of characters’, Mdhamiri told of how ‘moved’ he was by the Black Lives Matter footage from Oregon and Portland, as well as the ‘resilience and strength’ shown through the Indonesian transgender woman who features as both a busker and as a sex worker.
The inspiring discussion closed with Mdhamiri and Nse’s advice for UCL students who are interested in pursuing a creative career. Nse advises us to ask ourselves why: ‘if you know why, you won’t be swayed so violently by other people’s opinions or setbacks and things.’ Mdhamiri agreed, commenting on the importance of finding a network that you can collaborate and grow with.
Overall, the evening was a fascinating insight into the making of an incredible piece of art and a wonderful opportunity to hear the wisdom of two accomplished creative professionals.