I CUT THAT (and we cut it out)
I had thought editing a documentary in a language I don't speak would be the biggest challenge I faced working on “Letter From Masanjia”. But I was also concerned that dealing with two terabytes of unlogged, multiple format, mostly unsorted, footage shot in secret in China would be an issue. And then loosing access to our subject half way through post production was an unneeded and unexpected shock.
Ultimately, the biggest challenge was none of these.
Our assistant Jacey Shi effortlessly made English subtitles for the Mandarin language interviews and insitu footage director Leon Lee and I thought might be needed. The two terabytes of footage required nothing more than time, spreadsheets, and much more time, to sort out. And our access to our subject Sun Yi? It was a challenge, but every filmmaker eventually realizes they're going to have to make the film with the footage they've got, and not what they wished they had.
The major challenge, as with every story, was introducing our main character. And the scene I cut, which I remain proud of, introduced Sun Yi in a generic Beijing food court. While he swapped SIM cards in and out of his phones he explained to an unseen friend what he went through every day to remain off the radar of the Chinese Government. The viewer would watch this modest unassuming man he as told us why he was under surveillance. The scene was unexpected, interesting, and provided all the context necessary to engage the audience from the start of the documentary.
And when our Co-producer Melissa James screened the film for test audiences no-one like it
Confused and discouraged, Leon and I looked at the film, looked at our scenes and moved our "sim card swap" scene latter in the story. And no-one liked it there either.
The problem, and the solution, had nothing to do with our unloved scene. While making our part live action, part animated, political issues doc about the imprisonment of activists in Chinese Labour Camps, we eventually realized we were making a love story. A tale of a man who had written a letter seeking justice, and in doing so endangered his relationship with his wife of 20 years.
Once we knew that, the SIM card scene was replaced by Sun Yi and his wife Fu Ning, telling us what the discovery of his letter in a package of Halloween decorations in Portland did to them. The new scene had none of the intrigue of the other scene, but by the end of that scene the audience knew who our characters were and began to care about them.
And from there the edit and the story moved forward until months later we debuted Letter From Masanjia at Hot Docs and our film started to find its audience, eventually playing in over a thirty festivals world wide.