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“Editing Is an Unending Series of Difficult Decisions”: Editor Peter Kinoy on 500 YEARS


For director Pamela Yates and her colleagues at Skylight, 500 YEARS marks the end of a documentary trilogy on Guatemala. The film follows When the Mountains Tremble (1983) and Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011), both of which screened in previous years at the Sundance Film Festival. Veteran documentary editor Peter Kinoy edited all three films. Below, he discusses Skylight’s unique model as both a human rights organization and a film production company. 

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?

Kinoy: I am the editorial director at Skylight, a human rights media organization. We work as a team to decide what stories we are going to develop into feature length documentary films. In this case, 500 YEARS grew out of three decades of documentary work in Guatemala, starting in 1982 when I produced and edited When the Mountains Tremble, a feature doc about guerrilla war and social change in that country, which won the Special Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival.

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?

Kinoy: At Skylight we have developed a production model that incorporates my editorial storytelling skills from the beginning of the process, through development and pre-production. 500 YEARS , like many of our films, was shot over several years. During that time I was working with the material as it came in, assembling scenes, and editing the all-important pitch trailers. As editor, based on the material that is being shoot and collected in the field, I am able to make suggestions and observations about the strengths of possible storylines and protagonists that helps to shape subsequent filming.

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

Kinoy: We follow a traditional process of assembly: roughcut, finecut and finish. But at Skylight we try to make edit time a priority. We take as much time as needed to ensure that we understand the strength of the material, and the complexities of the story we want to tell. As the strengths and challenges of the storytelling begin to emerge in the editing room, I work closely with the director to find cinematic storytelling solutions based on the visual approach we have decided to take in the project. As director, Pamela developed a deep trust with the central protagonists in 500 YEARS. At the end of the roughcut stage we invited the protagonists into the edit room to watch the cut with us and comment on it. In this way we were able to make sure that our expression of who they are and what they are doing was aligned with their own. In human rights filmmaking this is especially important. Guatemala is a dangerous place for anyone targeted as a human rights defender and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t inadvertently exposing the wonderful people we were working with to attack. Finally, at the finecut stage, we engage in a series of test screenings to figure out what seems to be working or not in our editorial approach. We find that these screenings are crucial in the final polishing of the story.

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

Kinoy: I began as an apprentice editor in the Madison Avenue advertising business, cutting 35mm film on a upright Moviola that was like driving a truck. I came up through that system as an assistant and then editor working with a wonderful and generous editor Joe Staton, one of the first black editors in New York. Another mentor was the late Lora Hayes, who edited Harlan County, USA, and was always ready to challenge me in a good way. Two films came out in the early 1970s that had an influence on how I saw the possibilities of documentary storytelling; one a scripted film, The Battle of Algiers, by Pontecorvo and Solinas, and the other a documentary, The Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzmán. After seeing these incredible films I realized that documentary could be a powerful medium for reflecting on the crisis of our times. In 1976 I gave up editing TV commercials and began to edit independent documentaries, and I have never looked back.

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

Kinoy: We are using Adobe Premiere. I began editing documentaries on a 16mm Moviola flatbed, then on video, then on the first AVIDs that came out, and then in 2000 switched to Final Cut Pro. But with the demise of the Final Cut system we switched over to Adobe Premiere and have for the most part been quite satisfied with it as an off-line edit system. We moved 500 YEARS into Resolve for grading, and into an AVID Symphony for the conform and output.

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

Kinoy: Editing is an unending series of difficult decisions, some more painful than others. Structurally I think the set-up for 500 YEARS was the hardest part to get right, but there were also painful decisions about wonderful people and scenes that I tried, cut after cut, to keep in the film, only to see them hit the cutting room floor as we honed in on the story. Luckily these people and scenes may be resurrected in a series of shorts that we plan to release along with 500 YEARS.

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?

Kinoy: In 500 YEARS we worked closely with Mindbomb Films, a wonderful team of graphic artists who helped give a coherent graphic style to the film. This was especially useful in conveying certain information, since there is no traditional narration in 500 YEARS.

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?

Kinoy: I initially thought that 500 YEARS would be largely about the role of racism in keeping the indigenous Mayan population of Guatemala in check. But as the editing progressed a more universal theme of Mayan resistance to centuries of oppression began to emerge. Now that the film is completed I feel that the next stage will be to see it anew through the eyes of the Sundance audience, and then on to many other audiences who will bring their own particular lens to understanding the story we have told. I am hoping that many different audiences will find resonance with this theme of resistance as it reflects on their own lives.

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