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“What’s Exciting About Spending a Lot of Time With Footage Is Always the Patterns That Begin to Emerge”: Editors Geoffrey Richman and Michael Bloch on Descendant

Emmett Lewis in Descendant by Margaret BrownEmmett Lewis in Descendant. (Photo: Participant)

The 2019 discovery of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the United States, was the impetus for Descendant, but the film is as much about the contemporary residents of Africatown, the community just north of Mobile, Alabama founded by the slaves aboard the Clotilda. The film’s editors explain why they did not want to introduce the discovery of the ship too early, how Zora Neale Thurston helped shape the film, and how seemingly disparate elements gradually formed connections.

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?

Richman & Bloch: We’ve each worked with Margaret on various past projects, and we’re always looking for opportunities to work together. We share a lot of similar sensibilities and interests and have a great collaborative dynamic. As for the factors and attributes that led to her wanting to work with us, you’d have to ask her!

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?

Richman: I worked with Margaret in the earlier stages of the edit, and we had lots of conversations about the many facets to the story she wanted to include, from the story beats of finding the ship to the larger ideas of passing down stories and the survival of this community. One thing Margaret was clear about early on is that she didn’t want the finding of the ship to happen too early in the film or for that to be the driving storyline before people had a chance to connect to the characters and the community. Along the way, a lot of tangential scenes about other towns, the history of Mobile or relationships of specific characters bounced in and out of the cut. So it was always a balancing act of creating a forward-moving narrative in the events surrounding finding the Clotilda without losing sight of the themes and emotional thread tying it all together.

Bloch: The cut at the time I came on had a great foundation but also a ton of room for reshaping and reimagining. It seemed really important in this film to create a sense of perspective where the story elements feel like they are flowing from the characters and the community rather than like they are being told by some authoritative film’s standpoint. The act of gathering stories and the delicacy and uncertainty in how stories are passed on is itself central to the film. So we found ways to lean into that and sort of strip the film of any sense of “certainty” or authority. It became kind of about finding layers and repeated elements on which to hang a weaving narrative. The film itself becomes one of those layers, of how this history will continue to be passed on. Including the life of Zora Neale Hurston as an allegory and a kind of nexus point where the various elements come together was one key to making it all sing. Focusing on Kamau and Kern (and his magical trove of VHS’s) also became really important.

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

Richman: One of the many great things about working with Margaret is how open she always is to completely restructuring the film, letting go of runs that work to keep discovering new ones. Certain scenes became anchor points that helped shape the backbone of the story, and then it’s honestly a lot of trial and error, constantly moving scenes around trying to find connections that tell a larger story.

Bloch: I think the way to get there is always to find an intuitive inroad and trust it fully until it hits an impasse. Then find another one that feels right and trust that. This is something I think Margaret has a lot of wisdom about, about allowing the space for that trust to develop in her collaborators, when to engage, when to step back and reset, etc. She gave me a lot of valuable space to be compositional on my own and then we’d put our heads together. The trust between us to try things was very important.

We did also do a lot of feedback screenings towards the end, but we kind of resisted that until we knew we could be standing on solid ground in our own intentions. Those screenings were hugely important though. The humility toward the story itself among the whole team involved is maybe the most important component to how it came out. Everything was led by a strong care for the characters and the community.

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

Richman: I started out editing corporate videos and then moved on to a lot of non-fiction television, shows like Trauma: Life in the ER, Real Weddings from the Knot, and A Cook’s Tour. A lucky coincidence got me my first job on a feature documentary—the producer on a pilot I was editing was the former teacher of a director looking for an editor. I feel like most of the directors I’ve worked with influenced me in a lasting way. Things they’ve said or ways they approach their edits rattle around in my head, and their voices surface as needed when I’m editing something.… “No platitudes!” (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Shapiro); “It has to be entertaining, not just informative!” (Louie Psihoyos); “Yes, and…” (Mike Birbiglia); “Don’t force it, let accidents happen!” (Terrence Malick).

Bloch: Well, I kind of came up in music mostly, and would always tend to my semi-secret love of filmmaking on the side. Then I started to get side jobs as an editor, and got proficient that way, and one thing led to another. But I personally don’t really separate coming up as an editor from everything else I’ve been involved with creatively. I don’t feel much separation between this work and music or writing or anything else I love and care about. It’s all sort of one thing.

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

Richman: Avid. It’s just what I’m most comfortable with now. I used to go back and forth between Avid and FCP7, but haven’t really latched on to Premiere or FCPX.

Bloch: Avid and Premiere, because I know them well enough not to have to think about them much. Basically I just ideally want to be at a place where I have no thoughts about software ever.

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

Richman: Some of the descendant celebrations and meetings were a little overwhelming at first, mostly because of how much footage was shot. The speeches were interesting, but nobody wants to sit and watch people at podiums for too long, so it became about finding the center of each scene, the moment to wrap everything around. For instance, later in the film when you first meet Captain Foster’s descendant, it was about spending just enough time in the room for context before landing on that introduction, and then there’s nowhere to go but the next scene, the boat ride. But it could also be something much simpler than a character introduction, like in the celebration by the water, the whole scene is wrapped around a few shots that showed the industry surrounding the community. In both those cases it’s more about what’s happening in the background than the event itself.

Bloch: One challenging nut to crack for me was the storyline that deals with environmental racism and the community’s ongoing fight for systemic fairness in their physical surroundings. We needed to convey the seriousness of the current day situation while also not setting up the expectation that the film is going to “crack the case.” We didn’t want to leave breadcrumbs that demand too much of an expectation that the film will become more of a literal investigative piece than it intends to be. Connecting the historical and spiritual through-line by wedding much of the environmental narrative to Joycelyn’s reading of a key passage of Barracoon made that fall into place in an impactful way.

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?

Richman: The idea of stories being passed down was always meant to be a major theme in the film. It was in plenty of scenes that Margaret shot and in the conversations we were having. But at some point there was a cumulative effect, where the real power of passing down stories landed—seeing how integral it was, and still is, to Africatown’s survival, and how tied in it is to a spiritual connection they have to their ancestors. Margaret and I had only just begun integrating the reading of Barracoon, and I love how well Mike ultimately folded them, and the VHS tapes from Kern, into the story. They really helped tie the different elements of the film together and give a larger context to all the other scenes along the way.

Bloch: I think what’s exciting about spending a lot of time with footage is always the patterns that begin to emerge within the material, patterns that—once realized—begin to kind of light up and lead you to ways of making the story and characters resonate. For example, we didn’t go into the edit thinking consciously of the powerful connections between seemingly disparate elements—for example, headstones, camera reels, wooden artifacts, book recitations.

But as you get more and more into the footage, these elements that the characters all sort of hover around, you see all have to do with different sensory ways stories and memories are preserved. That for me was kind of an “aha!,” and then you find that scenes that might have felt more disconnected can actually connect in very moving ways. There were definitely many moments I had already watched a thousand times which became incredibly powerful as different contexts built around them. In the end I kind of feel like I know the people of the community intimately now through the footage, and this is a story that’s so big, I’ll probably find myself moved by it from different angles for a long time to come.

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