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“My Heart Continues to Break”: Editor Aaron I. Butler on Cries from Syria

Cries from Syria

Documentary director Evgeny Afineevsky earned an Oscar nomination for his 2015 film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. He returns two years later with Cries from Syria, which premiered this week at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s editor, Aaron I. Butler, spoke with Filmmaker before the festival about how he and Afineevsky sought to tell this difficult story. Among many issues, Butler discusses the fine line between crafting an honest portrayal of Syria and showing images too brutal for audiences to handle. Butler’s previous editing credits include The Sixties, I Am Michael and In Dubious Battle

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Butler: The director of Cries from Syria, Evgeny Afineevsky, was in Prague preparing the film for editing when he approached Stephen Mark, A.C.E., who was also editing there at the time. Stephen was already booked, but he knew that I edited documentaries so he sent me an email to see if I knew anyone that was available. Upon hearing the topic of the film I was instantly interested in the job. I had heard bits and pieces of what was happening in Syria, but the idea of being able to help the Syrian people tell their stories seemed like an incredible honor and a real challenge.

I received Stephen’s email on Friday morning, and I was interviewed by Evgeny Friday night at midnight. We totally hit it off on the phone, I really loved his passion and his deep knowledge of what was happening in Syria. He was impressed by my documentary work, but also by the fact that I edited narrative and was a producer on many of my projects. He offered me the job, but said that we needed to start immediately. Thirty hours later I was on a plane to Prague!

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Butler: My goals from the start of the film were to focus on the emotion and always keep the film coming from the Syrian people’s perspective, or as we liked to say in the edit room, “Keep it at their eye level.” The political situation in Syria is incredibly complex — you could make several movies explaining all of the details and still not cover everything. But we decided early on that this would be a film about the Syrian people’s personal stories. We wanted to give them a voice to show the world what they had been through, and to allow audiences to connect with them in a very direct way.

The most important element in the footage we focused on was the kids. The Syrian people had lived under a dictatorship for 40 years, but in 2011 the regime began openly torturing children. This was the final straw for the Syrians, and the revolution began in earnest at that point. As the regime continued to brutally attack the protesters and people who rebelled, we saw again and again in the footage the suffering of Syria’s children. No matter what you feel about the political situation in Syria, no one can deny that the suffering of these kids is inhumane. It’s one of the reasons why we decided to focus on them and bookend the film with two of the most iconic images of Syrian children.

But there was another element in the footage which we had to pull back on, and that was the brutality of the images. The raw footage coming from Syria was filled with situations too disturbing to include in the film. We wanted to give audiences an honest view of what was happening in Syria, but we knew that many of these images would be too much for people to handle. So it was a very fine line that we constantly struggled with.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Butler: Evgeny knew what events he wanted to cover in the movie and that he wanted a chapter structure, so I began as I always do, by first creating a paper cut based on his vision. First I read through the interview transcripts and copy and pasted the most personal and emotional stories into an outlining program. This allowed me to get an overview of how the individual stories interacted and built upon each other.

I did the same process with the footage and b-roll, watching through and pulling the best selects (with lots of help from the director and assistant editors who knew the footage best), and then coming up with ideas for purely visual moments and montages. Then I organized the various stories and visuals in the outline into an arc for the whole movie, so as soon as possible we had a strong narrative built out of the most powerful interviews and footage that we had.

Then the assistant editors helped me build out this paper cut using the actual footage and interviews. I also like to board up the entire movie on a bulletin board in the edit bay using index cards, with each beat in the film represented by a card. While the paper cut outline ensures that all of the specific emotional details make it into the movie, the index cards allow us to track the big picture flow of the film.

Because of the intense subject matter, one of our biggest priorities was giving the audience periodic breaks from the harshness of the stories. I used a three color system with the index cards in order to visualize this. For the sad and painful moments, I used red index cards. For the uplifting and inspiring moments, I used green cards. This allowed us to instantly see the overall emotional flow of the movie, and where we needed to give the audience a respite. Because most of the movie is subtitled and in Arabic, I also wanted to make sure that we had plenty of purely visual sequences where the audience could take a break from reading subtitles and let the story sink in. So I represented these more cinematic moments with yellow cards, to show where these sequences landed.

Each time I finished putting together a chapter we would screen with the post team, and discuss what was working and what wasn’t, and we’d come up with new ideas or new footage needs. After five weeks we had the first complete cut of the movie, which we began to send around to our close colleagues for feedback. We used their observations to make sure our story was clear and the emotional pacing was working.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Butler: We used Final Cut Pro 7. Evgeny had used it on his previous film and wanted to use it again on this one. Everything was already set up in FCP 7 when I arrived in Prague.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Butler: Growing up I always thought I was going to be a lawyer, so I studied pre-law as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. But in all my spare time I was making short films, it was always my passion. During my senior year my roommate asked me, “Why aren’t you going into film? It’s obviously what you love to do.” It had never occurred to me I could make a living making movies.

So my senior year I got a job at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley. I was hired by Academy Award nominated documentary director Bill Jersey based on some of my short films I showed him. Bill was an incredible mentor to me, and taught me so much about shooting, directing, editing, and most importantly, storytelling. I often hear his voice in my head when I’m editing, shouting his favorite advice: “Information should follow emotion!”

After spending three years as his lead editor and cameraperson, I decided to move to Los Angeles where many of my family lived. In Los Angeles I spent a few years working as a producer before getting back into editing full time. I edited many documentaries and series, including the HBO documentary feature American Winter, for which I was nominated for an Emmy and an Eddie. Then I cut three narrative features, including I Am Michael, which premiered at Sundance in 2015.

My biggest influence is the directors that I’ve worked with. Every one of them approaches story in a different way, and I love all the learning that takes place by working so closely with them. I forever carry a little version of each director in my head, and I’ll often use their unique perspectives to find solutions to problems, to give me inspiration, or to look at things in an unexpected way.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Butler: By far the most difficult scene to cut was the chemical weapons bombardment on civilians in Eastern Ghouta. We had footage from inside the hospitals right after the attack occurred, and watching little children convulsing and foaming at the mouth broke my heart. I had to watch through all of the footage in order to cut it together, and it was by far the most challenging editing experience of my entire career.

I knew that the only way to cut this scene together honestly was to fully experience all of the emotions that our audience would be feeling. So during the editing I cried, repeatedly. I let myself feel every emotion, and I acknowledged and felt every child’s death that I saw in the footage. And then to the best of my ability, I let it all wash over me, and I kept moving forward. I focused on doing my part to help them, knowing that above all, the Syrians wanted the world to know what was happening to them. They wanted people to see the barbaric actions of their government. And I knew that the emotions I felt watching the footage were nothing compared to those who witnessed the atrocities first hand.

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?

Butler: When I began editing the film, I had very little knowledge of what was happening in Syria. I knew that the government had been bombing rebels in Aleppo, and that many cities had been destroyed in a civil war. But I had no idea how or why the war had begun. By the end of the film, the thing that struck me the most was who the “rebels” turned out to be. They were just ordinary civilians, who had taken to the streets to peacefully protest the brutal torture of their children. Throughout the film I got to see firsthand how these civilians’ lives were changed by the war, the fighting that they were forced into, and the brutality their own government subjected them to, simply because they asked for the most basic human rights. The overall feeling I was left with is that the Syrian people are no different than you or I, and we must do everything we can to help and protect them.

Soon after the film was finished, we heard the news that Aleppo had fallen to the Syrian regime. It was a difficult blow to the revolution, and a horrible end to the unbelievable slaughter in that city. The war continues on, with more dying every day. My heart continues to break for the freedom fighters and refugees that the world has for the most part ignored.

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