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Controversial Edit

Aug 10, 2010 12:00 PM, By Tim Lovell, film editor, Mugabe and the White African

Piecing together Mugabe and the White African.


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Two of the few remaining white Zimbabwean farmers, Ben Freeth (in green) and Mike Campbell (in beige) fight through the courts to stay on their land.

Two of the few remaining white Zimbabwean farmers, Ben Freeth (in green) and Mike Campbell (in beige) fight through the courts to stay on their land.

This is the film President Robert Mugabe did not want the world to see. Shot covertly and with fear of imprisonment, Mugabe and the White African documents the brave and historic struggle of a 74-year old white Zimbabwean farmer to hold onto his land in the face of state-sanctioned terror. Exposing President Mugabe's brutal disregard for human rights, this film challenges the world to make a stand against an out-of-control regime.

I had worked with the directors, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, before and have always been impressed with their storytelling instincts out in the field. Bailey has a strong narrative flair with a wonderful ability to let the characters she is filming tell their own story. Thompson, her partner, is perhaps the most talented camera person I have worked with in more than 20 years. His footage is very cinematic, and I knew from previous experience how well he could capture the magic of African landscapes and faces.

Initially, Bailey approached me to cut a promo for the Mugabe film as she and Thompson were attempting to raise funding for the project. This needed to be done in complete secrecy, not only to protect the story, but more importantly, to ensure the safety of the contributors.

I have an Avid Media Composer suite in my own studio at home, and we elected to cut the promo there to keep the story away from the public domain and any uninvited interest. We had to keep the development of this project below the radar of Zimbabwe's government.

In the United Kingdom, the promo immediately secured the attention of More4, a feature documentary channel, and the first finances were put in place for the shoot and the filmmakers were committed to going into production.

During the next 12 months, the edit unfolded in a way I had never experienced. A 90-minute documentary in the United Kingdom would normally involve a straight run of nine to 11 weeks of cutting. However, the schedule for this film was dictated by the Zimbabwe government and its ability to continually postpone the international court case—the film's subject matter—was staggering. Shooting was interrupted, and this meant we had to approach the edit in a very different way. We had to be fluid and we needed to adapt.

The offline edit was eventually broken into three separate blocks. These blocks were weeks, sometimes even months, apart and corresponded with the camera footage as it was smuggled out of Zimbabwe. I was able to cut with Bailey and Thompson for a few weeks at a time until I had exhausted the footage. I would then move on to an unrelated project for a while before returning to the Mugabe film. Throughout this period, I had to remain absolutely quiet about the nature of the film, as the lives of the contributors and crew were still very much at risk.

I also had concerns about protecting the footage with such gaps in the edit schedule. Given this, we elected to cut the entire film in my own studio, some 150 miles from London—ensuring complete secrecy and never letting the footage leave the cutting room floor. The only exception was a series of cloned media drives I kept at a secure location. This was to protect us from the possibility of someone attempting to sabotage the film before its release. I maintained a high level of secrecy and security right until the final frame had been cut.

I was aware from the start that this would be a very large project to handle on my own, without the backup of a technical support team. I was worried about the edit running as smoothly as possible and that is why I elected to cut on Avid Media Composer—this is always my first choice as an editing tool. My system is fully Avid-qualified, comprising an HP xw8400 workstation with 3GB of RAM, twin monitors, an Avid Mojo system for realtime client monitor output, and an array of G-Tech FireWire 800 G-RAID external hard drives. In total, we used approximately 2TB of storage at offline DV25p resolution.

With this much material, it was vital that I organized the project efficiently, to make navigation and location fast and simple. Thankfully, Media Composer has the best project management capabilities in the business. Some lesser editing packages are a real nightmare with bigger projects: Footage vanishes and media drops offline. I find Media Composer absolutely rock-solid and extremely intuitive. In total, we didn't lose a single minute because of technical hiccups.

Consolidation and export of the soundtrack was effortless, and the handover to Molinare for online, grade, track lay, and mix occurred without problem. Media Composer's ability to move project information and media between systems is fantastic.

It was exactly a year between cutting the first frame of the promo and the last frame of the feature. In all that time, I lived and breathed the project, utterly compelled by the story as it unfolded. It was an honor to work on a film where so much had been put at risk and to work with a team who was so committed to bringing this extraordinary story to the world. I have been delighted to see it cause such a political and emotional stir around the world and hope it brings positive change for the wonderful people of Zimbabwe.

As of May 2010, the film has enjoyed an extensive cinema run in the United Kingdom and France. Distribution has been handled by Dogwoof, a U.K. film distributor specializing in social issue films: documentaries, independent films, and world cinema. It was released in select theaters in the U.S. in July. The film is now available on DVD in the U.K.

Tim Lovell has more than 20 years of experience as a film editor. In the past 12 months alone, films that he has edited have been nominated for Emmy Awards, BAFTA Awards, and most recently shortlisted for an Academy Award. His editing was recently described as "masterful" by an international panel of judges at Silverdocs 2009 and given special mention when Mugabe and The White African won the Sterling World Feature Award.

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