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“Most Films Go Through What I Call an Accordion Process:” Editors Inbal Lessner and Kim Roberts on Victim/Suspect

Victim/Suspect (Photo: Courtesy Sundance)

Below, editors Inbal Lessner and Kim Roberts discuss their work on Nancy Schwartzman’s Sundance-premiering Netflix documentary, Victim/Suspect, her follow-up to the doc Roll Red Roll. The film deals with alleged victims rape and sexual assault who find themselves on the other end of legal charges when they are accused of making false accusations.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.

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?

Lessner: Nancy Schwartzman and I crossed paths briefly when we were both doing outreach work related to sexual assault about a decade ago, and I admired her innovative ideas. When I was first contacted about this film and scheduled a call with Nancy, I tried to do my homework the night before and catch up on her latest film, Roll Red Roll. It was late at night and I planned to watch the first 10 minutes, but found it so enthralling that I couldn’t stop and watched all of it. I remember thinking that I would not change one splice in that film, and so it made me excited to work with her, because I sensed that she would challenge me to do my best work. I guess I was lucky that no one better was available and I got the job!

Roberts: Inbal and I worked together in the past, and she reached out to me to join the team and help in the last stretch of editing. I was very taken with the reporter– her diligence and willingness to follow the stories wherever they led.

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

Lessner: I was privileged to join the project before Nancy started filming, and had some time to review all the footage that Rae De Leon (the journalist protagonist) had collected in her initial reporting phase, including the police investigation videos and audio recordings, which became the heart of the film. I got to work with Nancy to pull the most illuminating moments from these lengthy police investigations, and helped her plan the use of these clips during production – playing on Rae’s computer screen or iPad – to enhance the experience of watching an active investigation unfolding in real-time. I wanted the viewers to feel the same disbelief and outrage about these videos that I felt when I first watched them.

As we moved from assembly towards final cut, my main challenge was to shape Rae’s investigation of these seemingly disjointed cases into one propulsive arc and let Rae guide us from one case to the next. It was also important to find the right balance between the survivor stories and Rae’s search for answers. I wanted the viewers to get emotionally invested in Rae’s quest for answers, be enraged when she gets doors slammed in her face or people not returning her calls, and thrilled when she has breakthroughs. To that end, we wanted the investigative journalistic process, which can be quite tedious, to look and feel exciting cinematically, like a thriller.

Roberts: Because I came to the film later in the process, my goal was to work with Inbal and Nancy to strengthen Rae’s arc, as well as help visualize the data and show the broader context of how sexual assault is approached by police.

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

Lessner: We realized early on that the film needed Rae’s voice over to have a cohesive narrative. We worked with Rae and used some of her initial interviews and other things she told Nancy in person to write her narration. We initially over-wrote and “drowned” the film with voiceover that was explaining too much, something I learned to do from Saar Klein, who edited for Terrence Malick, but once Kim joined the editing, and we found a structure that was working, we were able to trust the logical and emotional flow and let go of much of that voice over.

Roberts: Most films go through what I call an accordion process. Audiences are confused so you add details and context. But then the film gets bloated, so you cut back on exposition. You keep going back and forth til you find the sweet spot- enough exposition and detail so that audiences follow the reporting and are not confused, but where the film can primarily dwell in the verite and personal interviews. In a film with a narrator, this process is both easier and harder, but Rae was an amazing collaborator and understood the need for concision.

Lessner: Feedback screenings were a critical step in the editing process, especially because after a year of editing, we inevitably became a bit desensitized to some of the infuriating moments in the police videos. The feedback helped remind us which moments were the most compelling and outrageous.

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

Lessner: I discovered editing in a filmmaking program in high school in Israel and never looked for anything else to do. At NYU Film school I studied with Sam Pollard, Marco Williams and Judith Helfand and I interned for Barbara Kopple on a film that Bob Eisenhardt was cutting, so I had excellent mentors and role models. While I’ve dabbled in other genres, I find that the documentaries I’ve been a part of, and particularly those who have created educational and social impact, are the most rewarding to me.

Roberts: I came up through the San Francisco/ Bay Area editing world. I began working on independent documentaries in the 1990s before theatrical release was an option, often working in people’s homes. There was little money in documentary then, but enormous space for creativity and also a humane work/life balance. Since coming to LA, I’ve watched the industry change. Docs now have huge budgets and opportunities to reach more people, but can feel more industrial and impersonal. I try to hold on to the core of independent filmmaking- the creativity, close collaborations, and a humane workplace.

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

Lessner: We used Avid. I find it the most intuitive and reliable, especially when mixing various formats, and I can’t imagine working on a large scale project like this one without Avid’s Script Sync.

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

Roberts: The scene where Rae talks to the team of researchers about the data they found from Freedom of Information requests. Due to the different ways states, counties and police stations hold data, what Rae’s team was able to uncover is extremely complicated. The problem was how to show the challenge of gathering the data and reveal what the data showed, without confusing and losing the audience. We cut many iterations of this scene with more and less information, with and without graphics, and also debated losing it entirely. In the end, we went with a much simpler version of the scene, so that we got a sense of the scope of Rae’s investigation and findings but didn’t break the flow of the rest of the movie.

Lessner: I would love to mention an important scene that was not the most difficult to cut but felt like an unexpected gift that we had to get just right – the moment Rae gets choked up in the middle of her pitch presentation to her colleagues and editors. Rae was so controlled and professional throughout, that having this rare unexpected emotional moment was very telling about how Megan Rondini’s case was personal and important to Rae and how it propelled the rest of her investigation. If we used this scene in the right place in the film and in the right way, the audience would relate to Rae’s motivation and would be more invested in the process and the outcome.

Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit? (Feel free to ignore this question if it’s not applicable.)

Lessner: You’re not supposed to notice it, but we’ve done quite a few screen-replacement compositing to get that video content just right. Other VFX work included graphic treatment of documents to bring to life the police case files, and animated maps.

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?

Roberts: On a personal level, it changes how I will talk to my children when they head to college. Rae’s discoveries where shocking to me, and gave me new understanding of why many sexual assault victims choose not to go to the police.

Lessner: Despite my many years of work on documentaries dealing with sexual assault and sexual abuse, I recognized that I have inherent bias towards trusting authority figures and doubting the victims’ stories once the police investigators pushed them to withdraw their accusations or recant. I learned a lot about how much easier it is for the police to get victims to withdraw charges and to dismiss a case than to fully investigate and prosecute it, and I’m eager to see more journalists pick up where Rae left off and dig into finding more answers and demanding more accountability.

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