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“We Wanted To Embed the Viewer in the Energy of the Campaign”: Editor Aaron Soffin on And So It Begins

A Filipina woman wearing a pink striped polo and mask stands amid a crowd as rainbow confetti falls.And So It Begins, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

After Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s term comes to an end, the promise of democracy and threat of increased authoritarianism sends droves of citizens into the street to campaign for Liberal Party candidate Leni Robredo. Filmmaker Ramona S. Díaz captures the lead-up and aftermath of this critical election in her film And So It Begins, a companion to her 2020 doc A Thousand Cuts, about journalist Maria Ressa, who risks her life in order to vocally criticize Duterte’s involvement in the war on drugs.

Below, editor Aaron Soffin discusses how he came onto the project only five months ago, trained under filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and how integral music was for And So It Begins.

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? 

Soffin: Ramona Diaz and I were connected by a mutual film colleague when Ramona needed a new editor. She had a short timeline, and it lined up with my availability—we jumped right in. This was five months ago, and here we are! I have come into several projects as the second (or third or fourth) editor, a challenge that I particularly enjoy, so I think I was well suited for getting this one to picture lock.

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? 

Soffin: If you’ve seen And So It Begins, you know that it’s not a straightforward narrative. We do have a traditional (and useful) narrative timeline, in the form of an election, to build the film around. However, we knew we didn’t want the film to be just about the outcome of that election. Instead, we wanted to lean into Leni Robredo’s first-of-its-kind campaign volunteer movement in the Philippines, as well as its colorful performances, which elevated an already grand tradition in Filipino politics. The challenge was to build in just enough historical and political context to motivate this exploration of volunteerism, performance and the hope Leni’s campaign provided for millions.

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

Soffin: In more than 800 hours of raw footage, mostly from the campaign trail, there are so many small, human moments. They were often unrelated to the horse race of the campaign and not necessarily scenes in and of themselves. But they were also what we wanted to bring out most.

So I set out to find juxtapositions and groupings of these moments that spoke to each other and combined to convey something greater. I think we’re able to give viewers the context and propulsion needed to turn these disparate moments into something more poetic and reflective.

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

Soffin: I studied film as an undergraduate and chose to make a documentary as my senior thesis. That’s when I fell in love with the puzzle of editing. I was lucky enough to be advised by legendary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who taught me how to sift through footage for the moments that mattered, looking for emotion as much as story (and who I went on to cut a film for years later).

The first director I edited for was Andrew Berends, whose intimate verite cinematography—which brought the viewer straight into the scene, even in the most stressful and dangerous settings—taught me to trust footage with a patience I’ve tried to bring to all my work since then.

And sitting next to Kim Connell, who I edited Four Seasons Lodge with, I learned that sometimes we have to step away from the footage to see what it’s telling us. When I’m stuck on a scene, I always try to return to that place, knowing that the story will emerge in its own time.

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

Soffin: I cut the film in Avid Media Composer—my first feature using Avid after many on Adobe Premiere. As with many projects, the footage had already been organized before I was brought on, so I was not the one to choose the editing platform. Generally speaking, each platform has things I like and things I don’t, but the creative work remains the same regardless.

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

Soffin: Just before election day, the Robredo campaign events grew exponentially, ultimately drawing unprecedented crowds nearing 1 million people. We wanted to embed the viewer in the energy of the campaign and the hope that its volunteers held onto. They believed Leni could not lose and we wanted viewers to feel that too, even while polls still had her far behind.

Our challenge was to create a scene in which the viewer felt the momentum of one crowd leading to a bigger crowd the next day and the day after that, even when the image of 100,000 people is not significantly different from the image of 1 million people. We accomplished it largely through sound design, growing the crowd, then letting it fall back, only to hear it grow bigger again and again, leading up to Leni’s final speech for election day.

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?

Soffin: It was clear from the start how critical music was to Leni’s campaign and how integral it would be to the film. Still, as the film came together, I was surprised by just how much we were able to lean into the music, allowing it to become a central theme—to the point that we often call the film a musical!

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