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“In Some Mysterious Way, the Material Itself Begins To Speak to You”: Editor Amrita David on Girls Will Be Girls

Two Malaysian girls ride a scooter during dusk.Girls Will Be Girls, courtesy of Sundance Institute

Girls Will Be Girls, the feature debut from writer-director Shuchi Talati, follows a teenage girl named Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) as she navigates her sexual awakening while attending boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. Her domineering mother (Kani Kusruti), however, wishes to put a stop to Mira’s exploration of her autonomous desires.

Editor Amrita David, who also cut Alice Diop’s excellent 2022 film Saint Omer, discusses how her Indian heritage and editing intuition proved to be enormous boons to the film’s final form.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor questionnaire 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?

David: I was contacted by Dolce Vita Films when they were looking for an editor based in Paris, since the post-production part was to be organized in France. I was born in India and have been living here for the last thirty years. This was the very first time that I was offered a film with a story shot in India and I was absolutely thrilled. Meeting Shuchi online, discussing the screenplay with her, feeling that I could in some way identify with the characters and the storyline…all of these moments made me very eager to be able to edit Girls Will Be Girls. What exactly led to me being chosen, I don’t really know, but I am very glad that it happened!

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?

David: I started assembling the film when Shuchi was still shooting the film. I tried to follow the script and provide a first assembly that allowed us to take stock of the material and to have all the scenes more or less loosely edited on the timeline. We started working on the film together after this phase and my overall goal was to try and communicate Shuchi’s cinematographic style in a clear fashion. I love discovering new voices and new ways of telling stories and I think for a first feature film such as Girls Will Be Girls, this aspect is primordial. For the rest of the editing process, I think we tried to intensify Mira’s point of view on the world and her budding awareness of herself as the narrative base of the story. And we also focussed on making the dynamics between the characters as clear as possible without sacrificing any of the ambiguity of their relationships. To make the narrative arc as clear as possible, we restructured the beginning of the film so that Mira’s character and the transformation of her relationship with her mother become emotionally more intriguing and powerful. It was also interesting to work on Sri’s evolution from a likable and attractive young man to someone who is a little less perfect by the end of the film. Helped by some strong performances, and by Jih-Ye Peng’s cinematography, we kept tightening the story and streamlining it until the very last minute. Some painful sacrifices were made during the last week of editing, but I think that the result is absolutely satisfying. I feel that an edit is finished when I am sure that we have exhausted all the different possibilities and that we have tried everything that we wanted to. In the case of Girls Will Be Girls, I think this is the case.

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

David: I cannot mention any particular editing methods or processes that I use as a rule. My goal is to get as close as possible to the director’s intentions and then try to work with them as per the material that is available. For this to work, I need to build a close and confident relationship with him/her. With Shuchi, this didn’t require any major effort as we were on the same wavelength pretty quickly. Another thing that counts for me to function well as an editor, is to build a sort of organic relationship with the rushes. At some point, in some mysterious way, the material itself begins to speak to you and things fall into place, you seem to understand certain elements of the story on a deeper level. One begins to use one’s intuition more freely, and when that begins to happen I am confident that the narration is beginning to flow. I know it sounds strange, but I have really come to believe in this moment and now wait for it to happen. It does obviously require hard work before, during, and after, but when it does happen, I feel that I am really doing my job as an editor. As to feed-back screenings, I have learnt to start showing the film when the work has arrived at a point where the director and myself are ready for comments. I generally like to start with the producers and then open subsequent cuts to a close circle of people whose point of view we trust. Generally speaking, we used the screenings to clarify the story. And sometimes, even though we did listen very respectfully to what we were told, we chose to be stubborn and keep going in the direction we believed to be correct for the film.

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

David: I attended the editing department at the Femis Film School in Paris. After graduation, I have been lucky enough to work regularly in both documentary and fiction films. I have also been able to form enduring relationships with the directors I work with and really enjoy growing with them.

As to my influences, they are extremely diverse. I grew up watching Hindi blockbusters but was also fortunate enough to discover Satyajit Ray or Alain Resnais. I derive a lot of inspiration from the novels I read, from an exhibition of art that I will go to or to music that l suddenly discover. I admire the craftsmanship and the liberty of certain French editors like Nelly Quettier or Yann Dedet. I am also very much attentive to the work of certain independent female filmmakers like Debra Granik, Kelly Reichardt, Claire Denis, or Alice Rohrwacher. I respect them for the way they re-invent storytelling and bring  a very different touch to an industry that still remains somewhat male-driven.

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

David: I used AVID, because it is the most versatile system that we have. And it was easier to organize work between France, India and the U.S. because everybody seems to be familiar with it. I am not particularly attached to any system as long as it does what I need it to do.

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

David: The most difficult scenes to cut were probably the assembly scene where Mira gets heckled, and the scene a little after it when the boys of the school get nasty and start chasing her. We needed to create as much tension as possible and there were quite a few shots. We had to make it feel really scary from Mira’s point of view. We kept going at the scenes for quite a while, and I think that they started falling into place when we started using the subjective, somewhat expressionist shots in the scene. Instead of trying to be just realistic, we started using the impressions that Mira could be experiencing, by cutting more quickly, in a more nervous manner. It basically took a lot of hard and dedicated work is the short answer.

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

David: I won’t go into details as to VFX, but it did add atmosphere and “feeling” to certain scenes.

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?

David: I can’t really answer this last question as well as I would like to, because I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the film with an audience. This is when one starts rediscovering it. I couldn’t attend the Sundance screening, unfortunately, and will not be able to feel the pulse of the audience, which is a pity. From experience, it takes me about a year or so after the editing process to really see a film that I have edited and develop responses to it that are not related only to my job. I keep anticipating cuts, remembering rushes, etc. for a long time after the film is finished. It is the presence of the audience, and their reactions to the finished film, that sometimes make me see new things in the footage or in the story. 

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