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The making of Side by Side

I find editing the most rewarding part of the moviemaking process
Meet ... Terry and Debbie Mendoza
their film
Side by Side won a Gold Standard Award at BIAFF 2007
At UNICA 2007 it won the prestigious Fellini Humanity Award

Portrait of Terry Mendoza. Side by Side - coexistence in Israel

Debbie and I returned from a visit to Israel a couple of years ago and realised that what we saw on our TV screens only ever portrayed gloom and violence in that land. The reality is far more complex than the way the situation is portrayed in the news, so if all your impressions are gained from TV it is something of a culture shock when you visit Israel! Firstly it amazingly technically advanced - the Pentium chip was designed there, the mobile phone, Internet messaging, nano-surgery, a whole slew of innovative medical advances. It is a country of contrasts in other ways too, ranging from the high-rise modern tower blocks in Tel Aviv to the picturesque streets dating back to biblical times in Jerusalem. There are snow covered mountain peaks, arid desert, sun-kissed beaches with amazing corals and fish - and all within a few hours drive of each other! The only thing that is uniformly bad is the driving, which can make a dodgem track look orderly!

Portrait of Debbie Mendoza.

Visit Haifa and there's an even bigger surprise - it is a totally integrated city with Moslems, Christian and Jews living in the same roads, the same apartment buildings, studying together at the same universities. Moslem, Christian and Jewish doctors staff the hospital - all a far cry from the way Israel is seen on the box. Of course bad news is good news when it comes to the media, so it was this that spurred Debbie and I to make our movie Side by Side.

We definitely wanted to show Haifa - apart from the integration of all the main faiths it is also the spiritual headquarters for the Bah'ai faith; we recorded wonderful footage at the Bah'ai temple, interviewing senior people from their religion and photographing their stupendous manicured grounds - a 'must see' on any itinerary to Israel. With just a day's advance warning they were so cooperative; we got taken to places where filming is not normally allowed. Unfortunately this material ended up on the cutting room floor as the rough cut showed that it was not central to the main story. Sooner or later, we will certainly use this great material for a short movie about the Ba'hai.

We were visiting during the Christmas period, which proved an ideal time for filming in Haifa as they hold an annual 'Festival of Festivals' in the Wadi Nisnas area. This is a joint celebration of the major religious festivals from this time of year: Christmas, Chanukah and Ramadan. It was great seeing a Palestinian Father Christmas waving to the crowds and to hear the Palestinian marching band playing carols! We got to visit the local arts centre and film the cross-cultural art festival and competition - they have a set theme every year and artists from all the faiths interpret the theme - this particular year the theme was "Black Coffee". One hundred wonderful sculptures, in all kinds of media, are distributed along an 'art trail' in Wadi Nisnas.

So how did we tackle the project planning? Initially, well before our trip we shortlisted various coexistence projects - there are literally hundreds of these, big and small, around the country - we Google searched, checked out the various websites to see where they were located, and picked coexistence projects within easy reach of where we were staying. Israel is actually surprisingly small- just 12 miles wide at its narrowest and you can drive the length from end to end in just a day! But to make for easier filming we had booked ourselves for a couple of days each in three spread-apart locations. We emailed each project to explain what we wanted to do. Most responded very quickly and were very willing to help - although some had to be crossed those off our list where they advised us that their projects involving schoolchildren, so were not taking place over the holiday period.

A week or so before our trip we telephoned each key contact from our short listed group to discuss what we wanted in more detail - some of these conversations were 'interesting' as they had difficulty understanding our accent and vice-versa!

Originally we wanted to bring along lighting, but airline weight restrictions meant we had to content ourselves with a reflector and crossed fingers! Filming was to be done with a 3-chip Panasonic MX-500, which is wonderfully compact. For audio I used the Sennheiser K6/M66 and also the tie-tack, monitoring with Sennheiser HD25-1 headphones. The kit was completed by my Manfrotto tripod, which combines the 756B legs with the 701RC2 silky pan head - the combination is sturdy, reasonably lightweight, and has bowl levelling with spirit level (as you can tell, I love it!).

Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'.

Holiday of holidays

Givat Haviva womens

David Amitai Givat Haviva

What of the filming? Well much of what you see was real 'thinking on your feet' material - so often we were given five minutes to set up in an area with very unpromising lighting and given ten minutes both to set up, sound-check and carry our an interview - there was no way our reflector could bounce back the diffuse light in some of the locations…oh for one of my little key lights, it would have made the world of difference! Hopefully the content compensated for some of the flat lighting.

Filming at Givat Haviva had a pretty hairy start - this was an hour's drive away, and we were scheduled to arrive at 8am - poor sign-posting and my poor map-reading found us heading along a motorway past our intended destination just minutes before our appointment time! But we made it and there is no doubt that filming the ladies' cooperative in the nearby Arab village was one of our highlights. There was a palpable warmth and friendliness between the Jewish and Moslem members of this group. Myriam Dagan, the French coordinator of this coexistence project, brought us along to the village and acted as our producer there, finding subjects willing to be interviewed during the (very short!) tea break during this group's meeting.

It really was a case of thinking on the feet here - we had been filming by the weak available light that was present in Rasmir's front room. As soon as break time arrived we raced outside to set up, using the side of Rasmir's house as a backdrop. There was just sufficient time to level the tripod and white balance when the interviewees were herded out en masse - "How do you want them?" Miryam wanted to know, breaking the news that neither of the Moslem interviewees spoke any English - so she would translate!

Debbie suggested interviewing in pairs - one from each faith. Indeed this approach worked well, particularly as, at the end of the interview one of the Moslem ladies puts her arm around her Jewish friend and says that she likes Jewish people, and they break into a spontaneous laugh. Even whilst filming this I realised that here was a moving testimony to the purpose of the movie and an ideal way to bring the film to a close. When digitising, imagine my horror when I discovered that out of around twenty hours of footage, the only nasty picture glitch was right at the key point in this 'statement of coexistence' - all efforts to remove the glitch in post-production had minimal effect, so you'll still see it there if you look. It is one of those times when the content was important enough to override the technical needs to strive for a 'perfect picture'.

Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'.

Dr Moti Peri Bet Shalom



Imams on the lawn

People also comment about the disturbing opening shots of the aftermath of a bus bombing in Jerusalem. I needed to show a 'news coverage' shot to contrast the typical media depiction with the broader perspective. I could not use material broadcast by our own TV networks, as that would run me into copyright issues. I located this clip online on the site of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs - I explained my movie to them they were willing to allow me to use it in the final film. It was taken by someone who worked at the Ministry in Jerusalem - he'd heard a loud explosion, realised what it was, and rushed to the scene a few hundred yards away with his own camcorder. However it is a rather poor quality MPEG file from their website - once I'd downloaded the clip it was so pixelly - my solution was to start off with the clip as a small picture-in-picture, slowing growing to fill most of the frame - keeping it moving and less than full frame disguises the worst of the pixelation.

The essence of a movie is to communicate, and one difficulty that became evident early on during the editing was the fact that many of our interviewees spoke poor English, or spoke too rapidly to assimilate what was being said. I even tried slowing down one interview, using Audition to retain he same vocal pitch, but it looked totally artificial! Ultimately I settled for keeping the sequences of 'rapid talking' to a minimum. I did consider subtitling this sequence, but it would have meant subtitling the entire movie for uniformity, which I felt would lose impact as a result.

Another interviewee spoke haltingly, with a lot of stumbles, but their underlying message was important to the movie. So in this instance I edited the talking head sequence purely for meaning, removing stumbles and repeated information. What remained was an abbreviated talking head with a large number of jump cuts. It was now a case of locating the first length of this sequence without cuts to show the person visually, with their name caption, and over the rest of the sequence overlaid a meaningful montage of cutaways.

Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'. Still from 'Side by Side'.

language lesson at
Neve Shalom

Palestinian mayor

Holiday of holidays

Ilana Rofeh &
Samaher Abu Fane

I find editing the most rewarding part of the moviemaking process, and particularly the 'fine cut' stage. I never cease to be amazed and delighted when I discover the improvement that can result from very subtle alterations, the removal of a few frames here and there. So often I find shots can be shortened, often dramatically so, and almost invariably the pace improves without losing information - as my old friend Peter Davison used to say - more shots in the same time always adds interest.

Tying sequences together by bringing in the audio from the incoming sequence early to prepare the audience for the change of shot can also really make a movie flow. It is interesting that the audience is oblivious to such techniques, but it really does help to hold interest.

This was probably the first movie we have made with a specific message. It is therefore very gratifying that after showings we are so often asked why more about such coexistence is not seen on our TV screens - so to me, it seems that our 'message' of the film has got through.

- Terry Mendoza

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Page updated on 09 October 2011
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