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“I Was Struck by the Danger of Ideology”: Editor Keita Ideno on AUM: The Cult at the End of the World

Japanese AUM cult members sit in prayer wearing pink robes.AUM: The Cult at the End of the World, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Japanese cult behind a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 is the subject of AUM: The Cult at the End of the World from filmmakers Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto. Editor Keita Ideno talks about how his bilingualism, previous collaboration with the directors and personal memories of the nerve gas attack influenced the film’s cut.

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?

Ideno: Coincidentally, I was acquainted with both directors through other projects before starting this project. I met Ben Braun through Kusama: Infinity, a Sundance film I edited in 2018, and Chiaki Yanagimoto through my involvement as a co-editor on the feature documentary Words Can’t Go There, which she produced. They both knew how I worked as an editor and also I was bilingual in Japanese and English. They thought I would be a good fit for this project. 

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?

Ideno: The film begins when a British journalist learns of a bizarre incident in Japan. In the course of his investigation, he realizes that a cult group may be involved in various incidents.

When I started editing, my goal was to portray the film through the journalist’s point of view, as if the audience was experiencing what actually happened in the film. However, as I proceeded with the editing process, I realized that there was a deeper story to be told. In this film, ordinary people are brainwashed by the leader of a cult group and become its followers, and the situation takes an unexpected turn. I am sure that the audience who watches this film will have thoughts like, “Who is to blame?” However, I also believe that even these thoughts may be manipulated by someone else. That is the biggest message I realized while editing this film. Faith is complex and dangerous, and it is possible to be led and brainwashed by someone else’s ideas without realizing it. My ultimate goal was that this film would cause the audience to reflect on their faith and ideology.

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

Ideno: The directors wrote a very solid script at the beginning and were oriented toward building a narrative that would rely on archival material as much as possible. I spent a tremendous amount of time researching and finding the most effective archival materials and I tried to use them that conveyed the facts as much as possible and not to intentionally mislead the audience. Then, I went through the scenes with the directors and we decided what to enhance and what to eliminate.  

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

Ideno: To be honest, I never thought I’d be a filmmaker or even an Emmy-nominated editor. I came to the US to study TV broadcasting and was planning to go back to Japan after graduation, but when I was a senior at San Diego State University, I edited a short film which caught the attention of Kathleen Kennedy and premiered at the Directors Guild of America (DGA). This experience eventually led me to pursue a career in film editing in Los Angeles. 

Early on, I worked as an assistant editor on Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void and Isabel Coixet’s Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, which were both nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After that, I started to get feature editing jobs.

I was very fortunate to work with prominent filmmakers such as Gaspar Noé, Penny Marshall, and Jon Weinbach. They all influenced me a great deal and these great filmmakers helped build me as a film editor.  

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

Ideno: I used Premiere Pro for this project. It was a very effective editing system because of the complexity of the archive material coming from all over the world with different size, frame rate, and aspect ratio. I was able to edit the archive material on the fly.

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

Ideno: What I found particularly challenging was the part where we focused deeply on each fact, while at the same time being aware of the overall development of the story.

With a theme like this, where religion and incidents are intertwined, the message conveyed through the film depends greatly on how the archival footage is edited and the story is developed. For this reason, we paid particular attention to this area and made sure that the message was conveyed in the best possible 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?

Ideno: I was in high school when this series of events took place. At the time, it all seemed like a grand comedy as I watched people with merely unusual ideologies running for election and making appearances on television. But as I was exposed to the material, I was struck by the danger of ideology. We all live in a state of anxiety, and we all seek answers.

Thought is a delicate thing, frighteningly unconscious, influenced by others, and infinitely expanding like the universe. We are swayed and hang on to those who say they know what tomorrow will bring. One of the symbols of this is that many of the people who fell in love with this guru and religion were ordinary people with high academic backgrounds.

The completion of this film made me rethink whether my own thoughts and ideas were really heading in the right direction. The clash of ideas with others creates division and even war.

I felt that it is only when we call ourselves back from that universe of ideas and focus on ourselves that we realize the beauty of life and the meaning of relating to others.

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