Conversation with A Storyteller

Q&A with Arielle Amsalem, Editor

Published on in Miscellaneous

by Michael Valinsky

After initially meeting at Manhattan Edit Workshop's Inside the Cutting Room event, we followed up to talk further with Emmy-Award winning editor Arielle Amsalem at Third Rail Coffee in Greenwich Village, NYC.  One of the most promising up-and-coming documentary editors today, we had the opportunity to ask her a whole range of questions.  Here's our fully-caffeinated interview.

Q:  In terms of editing, where did it all begin?  What inspired you to go down the road of cutting movies?

For me it all began in high school, where I was under the impression that making a documentary would be the easiest way to make my mandatory entry to the school's history fair. I don't think that anyone who works in documentaries would describe the work as easy, but armed with the family camcorder and iMovie I realized that, though it was a lot of work, it was work that I enjoyed. I seemed to have a natural ability and intuition for the editing in particular and that was thrilling to me.  From there I went on to take film classes and work at production companies during my summer breaks and to gain experience in producing, assistant-directing and post-production.  It wasn't until I was at NYU though that I decided to dedicate myself to the editing. 

Q:  Where did you study and learn your craft?  

I studied film at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. That provided a good foundation of knowledge, both about editing and the industry in general, but learning the craft came afterwards as I started my professional career.  I started as an apprentice with Sam Pollard who let me shadow him for a year and eventually hired me as his assistant editor on Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary "When the Levees Broke" - which was awarded an Emmy Award for editing.  It was the first time I had seen a feature project through all the stages of post-production through to deliverables and I learned about the technical aspects, structuring, and organization in the edit room.  Since then I have continued to learn something on every project, even now as an editor on my own projects. Filmmaking is a collaborative art, and so I find that as I work with new directors, producers, and other editors, we exchange ideas and critique each others' work and we are always teaching each other something new. 

Q: What do you edit on?  

I have experience editing on both Final Cut Pro and Avid, and I have switched between them often in the last 10 years. Most independent documentaries tend to be edited on Final Cut Pro because it is a more cost effective platform, but that has been changing a bit lately as Avid has come out with more reasonably priced software that no longer requires a hardware add-on. My feeling though is that the craft and creativity of editing come from within. The software, hardware, etc are just tools, and if you know how to use your tools well enough- whichever ones you choose to use - then you will achieve your desired result. I even had a chance to pick up FCPX for a documentary I edited recently called "Comedy Warriors".  The film tells the story of 5 veterans who learn stand-up comedy as a form of healing for their PTSD.  Because there was a lot of multicamera shooting done when the warriors were performing the directors opted to use FCPX.  I'll admit that the editing was slower until I was comfortable with the software, but once I got the hang of it I was able to achieve what I would have done on the other platforms - albeit with a few workarounds.

Q: How do you keep learning outside a formal environment?

I read a lot. There are many resources and forums on the internet for editors and film makers. Including but not limited to Creative Cow, Art of the Guillotine, and Mac video. I read articles about new technologies, conversations between editors, interviews of editors and filmmakers. I also keep a constant eye on Variety for industry news. It's easy to be in a bubble when editing - you are often working alone and it can be quite isolating, but I find it important to stay informed on what is happening in the industry at large.  

Q: Who are some of your influences: favorite editors, directors, films?  

By far the largest influence on my work has been my mentor Sam Pollard. He taught me about structuring and story telling for documentary and I believe that I really picked up his style of editing in the process. Beyond that experience, I have been an admirer of the editor Walter Murch since reading his book "In the Blink of an Eye" - a must read for anyone who is interested in editing. But beyond admiring his craft, I am also quite interested in his pioneering spirit in terms of adopting new technologies in the edit room before they become widely used. For example, his use of Final Cut Pro to edit "Cold Mountain", the first studio feature film to use the platform.    


Above: Sam Pollard (left), Walter Murch (right)

Q: Editing is storytelling.  To find inspiration, or out of pure interest, what do you find yourself reading?

What interests me the most in the projects that I do is to tell peoples' stories. I like to delve into what motivates people, to understand their decisions. In editing that can sometimes be the hardest thing to communicate to an audience, but if done successfully it can engage that audience in a way you otherwise wouldn't. If a viewer can identify with a character in a film then they can be emotionally invested. Without understanding a person's motivations though it is hard to identify. So I like to read books, articles, news stories that delve into that aspect of story-telling whether fiction or not. I find myself particularly drawn to articles that delve into the back story of a person in the news, where they come from, and how they came to do what they do, or be who they are. I think you'll see this in the documentary that I edited, "The Education of Dee Dee Ricks", which aired on HBO a few years ago.  The story is about two women with breast cancer, one who was very rich and the other had no health insurance.  We were really talking about the health insurance issue, but by doing it through a personal story we kept it interesting and engaging.  And we were able to start a dialogue in an entertaining manner. 

Q: What other types of stories, fiction or non-fiction, are you consuming?

I really think the best stories are ones that really happened.  In fact, you'll see a big trend in that direction both in the surge in interest in documentaries in the last few years, but also in the kinds of feature films that are doing well at the box office and at award season.  Films like Argo, The Kings Speech, The Butler.  So even the fiction that I read tends to be based on real events.  The last two I have read were "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson, which is about the US Ambassador to Germany during Hitler's rise, and Isabel Allende's "The Island Beneath the Sea", a fictional story which takes place alongside real events in Haiti during the big slave uprisings.

Q: You had great success with By The People documentary about President Obama's first campaign in 2007-8.  What was editing that big political doc like?

When we started editing that film it was before the first primaries had taken place and we went into the story with no idea of how it would end. So our focus shifted constantly as the story was evolving. In the end though, it became clear to us that although it was a political documentary the story that we were telling was a personal one. It was the collective stories of all the people who had contributed to making Barack Obama's presidency happen. We of course had to cover all of the events and facts of the election, but those aren't what made the film connect to its audience, it was all of our characters'experiences of and reactions to those events. And in the end, when Obama wins the election, as a viewer you feel real emotion not because of the facts - you already knew he would win when you started watching - but because of the empathy for the emotions of those characters. Striking that balance between covering the facts and delving into the emotion took a lot of work. We had to keep in mind that people would watch this film a year after the election with all the events fresh in their mind, but we also knew that the film might serve as a historical document one day and be seen by audiences who were perhaps too young to be aware of all the events of the election.  And we wanted both audiences to be able to follow it and be engaged.

Above: Amy Rice  (left) and Alicia Sams (right)

Q: What are you currently working on?

I am currently editing a 3-part documentary special for PBS titled "Coming Back" which will air in May 2014. The documentary, which will be hosted by bestselling author Wes Moore, a veteran himself, tells the stories of several service members who have deployed in Iraq and Aghanistan as they reintegrate into their families, communities, and civilian society.  Less than one percent of the US population has served in the military, which means that many of us may not even closely know someone who has served.  With the wars coming to an end and more and more military men and women returning I believe that more people should be aware of the experiences those men and women are going through. Again, it's taking a deeper look behind the headlines, and hopefully getting a bigger picture of who these veterans are. 

Q: Looking forward, what are some of your goals as an editor and creator?

After working on a film for up to a year, there is very little that is more rewarding than seeing it released and seen by the public.  I am very fortunate that I'll have three of my documentaries showing on TV in the next year.  First, a very entertaining film "Comedy Warriors" will be on Showtime on December 5th.  The film features Zach Galifianakis, Lewis Black, BJ Novak and other well known comedians teaching wounded veterans to do stand up comedy as a form of healing.  We've had great response to the film at festivals, including a few awards, and I'm thrilled to see it reach a wider audience. Following that, a documentary called "The Contradictions of Fair Hope" will air on Starz in February, and finally "Coming Back" will show on PBS in May.  These three films couldn't be more different, but they all have been a pleasure to work on.  Hopefully these projects will lead to more interesting projects where I can continue to tell stories that interest me to a wide audience.

To learn more about Arielle Amsalem and her projects, visit

images courtesy of Arielle Amsamlem, Google and IMDb

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