By Jim Hession, 2013 Fellow
Shortly after learning that I would be fortunate enough to be named the 2013 Karen Schmeer Editing Fellow, I had the honor to meet up with one of Karen's oldest and dearest friends. Her name: Tanya Braganti. Her profession: photographer. Her goal: to take at least one headshot of my ugly mug and make it appear, at a minimum, presentable.
As it turned out, Tanya and her obvious talents achieved the ultimate objective in ways that I think surpassed everyone's greatest expectations, as she managed to compose an exceptionally flattering picture, for which I am incredibly grateful. And as someone with a fondness for the photographic image, I was genuinely interested in Tanya's thoughts while we walked around New York City's Meatpacking District in search of things like "good light," "good backgrounds" and poses that that would somehow make me appear "more natural." In my opinion, check, check and check... mate!
But it was Tanya's memories of Karen, which she generously shared with me between the "click, click, click" of her camera, that I will remember most about our brief encounter.
As I came to learn, Tanya attended Boston University with Karen way back when. It was there that the two classmates spent four years enrolling in courses such as "Being Indian in South America" while bonding over their mutual affection for life's oddities, quirks, obsessions and the people who possessed them.
It is perhaps not a coincidence, therefore, that they both cited Cinemania as one of their favorite documentaries of all time. Directed by Stephen Kijak and Angela Christlieb, the film follows five self-proclaimed cinephiles who compulsively watch between two and five movies every day. Yes, that is correct—two to five movies everyday. If you're like me, you haven't watched the documentary until someone kindly brought it to your attention, but just to give a taste of what the film explores: one of the characters is Harvey Schwartz, a man living with Asperger’s Syndrome who sustains himself with the sole help of disability benefits while wontedly watching "just about anything" and proudly possessing hundreds of vinyl soundtracks without ever bothering to own a record player. It was a shared appreciation for these sorts of matters that brought Karen and Tanya close over the years.
After graduation, like many college friends, the two lost touch for a period of time. After all, while Karen was busy working in Boston for the filmmaker Errol Morris, Tanya was consumed by her apprenticeship with the Vietnam photojournalist Phillip Jones Griffiths in New York City.
But it was shortly after Karen had completed the editing of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. that she and Tanya reconnected. Now a resident of Manhattan, Karen spent many weekends with Tanya strolling the not-yet-trendy sidewalks of the Meatpacking District on undefined photographic excursions. Snapping pictures of this and that as she zigzagged the gritty avenues and streets, Karen preferred to carry her Polaroid Land Camera, reveling in its distorted, heightened and immediate renderings of the physical world. Their walks would usually commence at the nearest available dive bar, and according to Tanya, it was over drinks that Karen would "hint" that she had "edited a couple of documentaries" in the past few years. Back then, Tanya didn't think much of "these documentaries" that Karen so humbly alluded to because, frankly, she hadn't heard of them.
At this point in the story, it should be noted that while Karen and Tanya were reconnecting as friends, the aforementioned documentaries were almost singlehandedly altering the film world’s perception of what a documentary could be, and critics were busy anointing the works with words like "brilliant," "magical" and "wildly original." And on a personal note, yours truly was so inspired while watching these films over and over again in my college dorm room that I began to think for the very first time that I might want to make movies for a living. Nevertheless, in Karen’s description to one of her closest friends, these were just "a couple of documentaries." No big deal.
At the tail end of our outing, Tanya and I wandered into a nearby bar, where the conversation eventually led to her describing what it was like to lose a dear friend.
"It was all so surreal and unbelievable when I first found out," Tanya recalled before going on to reminisce about the memorial service that was held in the days immediately following Karen's death.
Karen working the box office at the Coolidge"It was at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline," she remembered as her eyes began to water. "Karen used to work there as a ticket-taker."
Knowing that I had spent some time living in the Boston area and perhaps trying to change the subject, Tanya asked me if I had ever been to the well-known arthouse theater.
"No, I’ve never been," I answered without giving the question enough thought. "Sorry, that's not right," I quickly corrected myself in the same breath. "I went there once. It's where I saw The Fog of War for the first time."
I paused for a few moments. Tanya nodded. And we both realized the unintended significance of what I had just said.
"Yeah, it's where I saw The Fog of War for the first time," I uttered again—this time a little softer, a little slower.
A reposed smile appeared on Tanya's face. A slight twinkle entered her eye.
"Good movie," she said.
Karen in front of the Coolidge