How to Cope with Editing Difficult Material

As a documentary editor, I’m often presented with footage of life’s most challenging situations including poverty, illness, and war. So how does an editor keep themselves open to the emotion of the footage without getting overwhelmed by it? And once the project is complete, how does one cope with the emotional aftermath?

The first step in editing is watching the footage all the way through, and paying close attention to how it makes us feel. What the editor experiences is most likely what the audience will feel when they see the footage, so being very open and sensitive to what is going on inside us is crucial. However, this becomes a much more difficult proposition when the footage is filled with life and death situations. 

In my last documentary film, Cries from Syria, there was a scene where a Syrian town had been hit with a chemical weapon attack. As a result of the attack, we had over four hours of material to watch from the hospitals, and the effects of the chemicals were horrifying.

Cries from Syria  Footage

Cries from Syria Footage

The most brutal aspect of the footage was of the children. Seeing toddlers having seizures and watching chemicals bubble out of their mouths was one of the most gut-wrenching things I've ever seen. In order to cut the most powerful and honest scene possible, I knew I would need to watch all of it and feel all of it. I let myself experience all of the pain, the sadness, and the horror; I felt each child's death onscreen.

I knew that I couldn't suppress all of the emotions I was feeling, so I let myself cry repeatedly during the editing process. I would feel everything, and then cry and release everything. No matter how disturbing the footage was, it was the only way to keep going.

Knowing that these stories were now in my hands, however, and that it was my responsibility to create the most powerful movie possible, was one of the main things that got me through. My hope throughout the process was that the world would see what happened and feel inspired to take action.

When the movie was finished, there were so many emotions to process, and this took me into a depression. After watching the movie dozens of times during the editing, I found that I could no longer watch it without breaking down crying. The movie itself became an emotional trigger bringing back all the horrors I had seen.

The director of the movie gave us all a PTSD audio program to help ease us out of the project, which was very helpful. Our film team had become a family through the process, and spending time with them after the movie was completed was also very supportive in working through the PTSD. I also had a great therapist, but even with all of the help, I still needed to take a lot of time off work before I was able to get back to normal. 

After about six months of recuperating, I felt that I had been able to really process my experience and move on. And though I may never be able to watch the movie all the way through again, I am so proud of the important work we did.

For six long years, the Syrian people have wanted the world to see the atrocities they were being subjected to. By assembling together the hundreds of hours of footage that the director was able to get out of the country into a powerful and compelling story, the world now has a record of what happened. Everyone that sees the film comes away with a clear understanding of a complicated situation, and many people have been inspired to take action and make a difference for the people of Syria. 

So would I edit another difficult documentary after this? Absolutely. The most difficult stories are often the most important stories. If you take care of yourself both during the editing and afterwards, you can learn and grow from the experience and walk away inspired to do more good in the world.



Aaron I. Butler, ACE  is an Emmy Award winning and two-time Eddie Award nominated film editor and producer living in Los Angeles. He works on both documentary and feature films.