Equity demands more mentorship in the edit room

Whenever I’m asked how I made the leap from assistant editor to editor, one particular stunt comes to mind.

I was working as an assistant editor at a production company, back in the days when we still had to capture footage from tapes. It was the mid 2000’s. The shop didn’t have network storage yet, so each editor was working off of a standalone external hard drive.

That meant that assistant editors (AE’s) had to come in and do their thing at night, when the editors weren’t there.

Unfortunately, night shift work meant little overlap with the editors for mentorship, and little opportunity for relationship-building or even basic human contact.

I knew I had to get experience cutting somehow, yet no one was going to just hand it to me. So I bought myself a Mac G5 computer, Final Cut Pro, and an external hard drive. All on credit.

Then I surreptitiously copied over footage from the series the production company was making onto my drive.

I took it home and started practicing cutting scenes. When I was happy with it, I showed it to one of the editors in the hope that she’d give me feedback – and more scenes to cut. Basically I felt like I had to light some fireworks if I was ever going to get any mentoring.

While the editor told me I probably shouldn’t have taken a risk like that, my dare paid off. The ball started rolling after that. They started to see me not as the graveyard-shift ingest girl but as an aspiring editor.

But the truth is, my indiscretion might not have been forgiven so easily if I hadn’t been white.

This echoes a point Steven Golliday made on the Getting Real conference panel, “Intersectionality in the Edit Room,” in October 2020. Golliday is a young Black male documentary editor who made the leap from being an AE relatively recently. 

And he talked about how white AE’s (and probably by extension “model minority” AE’s) are able to make rookie mistakes and get a pass – while AE’s of color are held to a different standard.

So how are we to level the playing field in post-production? How are we to nurture a new generation of storytellers in the edit room that are not overwhelmingly white, cisgender, and able-bodied – as it has been up until now?

 

Mentoring

Anyone who’s become an editor knows that making the leap from being an AE to editor is really hard. It can often feel like climbing a vertical rock face without any harnesses or ropes.

And Golliday, along with Luna X Moya, another young filmmaker of color on the panel, emphasized how mentoring relationships have been crucial to their career growth, especially with Black and brown editors whom they can relate to.

They talked about the pressure of having to work so much harder, make fewer mistakes, carry the burden of representing their communities, and contend with tokenization – being hired by predominantly white teams in order to up a production’s diversity quotient without any meaningful benefit to their own careers or genuine concern for their well-being.

My own experience as an AE is something I’m proud of, but also one of the hardest of my life.

And I hate to think that there are other aspiring editors, especially aspiring editors of color, indigenous, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and/or undocumented, who simply drop out of pursuing a documentary editing career because the climb can be such a grind. Even detrimental to their mental health.

 

Whiteness and the leap

The documentary industry as a whole is undergoing a long-overdue reckoning when it comes to systemic racism and exclusion. That movement is being led by organizations like Firelight Media, thought leaders like Sonya Childress, and trailblazers like Iyabo Boyd and Marjan Safinia. And I certainly hope that that reckoning doesn’t pass over the less examined realm of post-production.

Because if things continue the way I experienced them when I was an assistant editor, documentary post production will remain inhospitable to the talent, voices, and perspectives we need most in the edit room.

This is especially true of the commercial non-fiction realm, which in contrast to the public media and independent filmmaking realms, offers the potential of better incomes and more sustainable careers, but is much further behind the curve in terms of equity and inclusion.

Despite how difficult the climb was in my own case, the system of white supremacy was absolutely instrumental in my success.

There are a number of ways how:

  • Being white spared me an untold number of degrading and enraging experiences, like racial pay discrimination, or feeling overworked and unsupported while at the same time being tokenized for my ethnic, racial, or gender identity.
  • It gave me a confidence deep down that I would eventually find my place in an industry where nearly everyone looked like me and was a stakeholder in the same culture of individualism.
  • It meant I had unencumbered access to privileges like a college education, US citizenship, a car to get to and from work, a computer system bought on credit.
  • And as much as I felt out of place in the white bro culture of commercial non-fiction (while meanwhile feeling a little too comfortable with its close cousin, the culture of the white omni-expert), being white, cisgender and able-bodied meant I could tolerate it – long enough at least to get an industry foothold.

 

Getting my start

When I got my start, around 2003, I had moved home to Washington, DC from San Francisco. In DC there was an active ecosystem of commercial non-fiction production for networks like National Geographic and the History Channel.

So even though my heart was more into independent docs, DC felt like a safer bet than trying to start a documentary film career in SF.

In SF, in an interview with an independent producer, I was told I could have the job as long as I wrote grant proposals to bring in the money to pay myself. As someone who grew up with a certain amount of financial insecurity (my father was a doc filmmaker!), that was a non-starter.

Meanwhile going the grad school route seemed financially out of reach. At least in DC I could live rent-free with mom for as long as I had to as I scrambled to get paid industry experience.

My first “real” job as an AE offered no security. For the first few months, I would get a call each day from the production manager letting me know if they’d need me that night or not.

And being night shift work, it was deeply isolating.

So each day I’d wait for my call, and if it came, I’d go into the office around 6:30pm and work until maybe 2am. One time, I walked in the door and the boss said, “well I know it’s time to go home! Leslie’s here!”

I felt like a vampire. Meanwhile my social life was working at a restaurant part-time. I was pinching every penny I earned.

One night I remember returning home at 2 am in the cold and pouring rain, the only parking place I could find was three blocks from my house, and I was on the verge of melting down. I thought, “why the hell am I doing this to myself?” Never mind the vulnerability of being a young woman returning home alone in the middle of the night in the city.

I was absolutely miserable – in fact during that period I experienced several bouts of severe depression – but I was determined to persevere. Granted, life as an AE wasn’t exactly working in a warzone. But neither was it a situation that many people would voluntarily opt into.

At one point, wondering if I shouldn’t look for more stability, I interviewed for a job that was completely unrelated to TV and film. I was offered the job, and the decision of whether or not to abandon my goal of becoming an editor was an inflection point in my career.

I decided to stick it out.

And I have no doubt that my subconscious awareness of racial entitlement was like a pilot light that kept the flame of wanting to become an editor ignited through times when I otherwise felt like I had no support.

 

The other ‘ism’

I also had to swim upstream against dual currents of sexism: the male-dominated tech world of post production coupled with the white bro world of commercial non-fiction.

Being an AE circa 2005 meant first and foremost being an expert tech troubleshooter. Technical skills, not storytelling talent, were the gateway into post production jobs.

As a young woman in this position, I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to prove my mettle in a way that I’m pretty sure my cisgender male colleagues did not.

I also realized that I had to demonstrate to the white male owners of the company that I was worth keeping around for long enough to give me the chance to actually get a leg up.

Their post production operation was in disarray, and I saw this as an opportunity. I set out to systematize it so that there wasn’t chaos every time an editor needed to output a cut. That gambit also worked.

They created a position for me – Post Production Manager. Through that position I achieved some much needed stability, financial security, and respect.

It also inadvertently created another obstacle: getting out of the new pigeonhole I’d created for myself to continue on the path to becoming an editor.

Eventually I made it. I didn’t let up on letting the people with power know what my real goal was. So at first the production company bosses asked me to cut a promo. Then do some reversions. And finally, edit a full episode of the series.

My really big leap came when I got a call to be an editor for an international TV network. Entering the building, it didn’t take a hot minute to realize that the vast majority of Black employees were either security guards, janitors, or cafeteria workers, while the media workers were overwhelmingly white.

Collectively, I think that “we” the media workers took for granted that this obvious segregation was just the way things were. Perhaps we were all too imbued with a sense of chosenness to take notice. Too invested in our own personal success to care enough to do anything about it. Or simply too beleaguered from our own difficult climbs to feel responsible.

I set my sights on one day transitioning into projects that felt more aligned with my values. I didn’t feel like I arrived there until I got jobs editing for PBS Frontline and Al Jazeera English. In the meantime, the privilege of being able to collect a decent, regular income (in contrast to many people who take the indie or public media route) was a salve.

 

The solution?

So maybe you’ve gotten this far, and you accept the premise that mentoring is a big part of the solution to ensuring greater equity within documentary post production.

But that’s where we run into another systemic snag.

With time pressure upon editors so fierce – relentless schedules of 10 to 12 hour days and six day weeks are not uncommon – it takes a remarkably dedicated person (one might even say a martyr) to take on the additional commitment of mentoring an AE.

Is mentoring, then, something that production companies and media staffing agencies should actually be building into their budgets as a line item distinct from the editor? Because I don’t see editors catching a break any time soon, allowing them more time for mentoring. Should documentary funders be demanding that producers allocate money to it?

Or maybe you’re asking – why is any of this even important? White editors can care just as much about social justice and be just as respectful in our portrayals of people different from us.

Well, the fact is – no, we really can’t. We have neither the range of experience, the moral authority, the outrage in our bodies, nor the sense of accountability to community to give us the necessary perspective or urgency.

We don’t have enough skin in the game to be taking ownership over everyone’s stories. And like it or not, documentary storytelling has a colonial legacy that we’ve all inherited.

So if we are to create more equal opportunity within the industry

…while also correcting for decades of misrepresentations of Black, brown, indigenous, trans, undocumented, LGBTQIA+, and disabled people on-screen (or their omission altogether)…

…while moving away from the perpetual use of documentary to build empathy for minorities in the eyes of predominantly white audiences…

…away from “well intentioned” but trauma-unaware filmmakers mishandling the stories of their “subjects”…

…and towards using film as a tool that allows communities to see themselves reflected in all their facets…

…towards film as a tool for their liberation

…then investing in mentorship in the edit room is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Nurturing a new generation of editors who are BIPOC, non-binary, disabled, LGBTQIA+ and undocumented is a non-negotiable.

About the author 

Leslie Atkins

Leslie Atkins is a documentary editor and story consultant who wants to save filmmakers from unnecessary agony when they edit on their own. She is lost in translation somewhere near the intersection of visual storytelling, online entrepreneurship, and motherhood. Or geographically speaking, in her adopted home of Mexico City.

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