By Jim Hession, 2013 Fellow
In the story that plays out in my own mind (and nobody else’s) I am an undercover secret agent whose misunderstood profession sends me to faraway, unfamiliar and often lonely places. Each of my missions has an objective, but the respective paths that lead to their successful completion are riddled with missteps, uncertainty and constant doubt. My job description isn’t always entirely clear to me, so I certainly don’t expect my family and loved-ones to truly understand what it is that I do for a living either. In fact, I embrace the inherent cloudiness of my chosen profession, as I feel that it facilitates a persona of mysteriousness that I would not otherwise possess. After all, being a secret agent is pretty cool even if the secret agent is not.
However, in the world that all of us fondly refer to as “reality,” I am a film editor. I live in an apartment building on the far west side of Manhattan with my beautiful wife, Mariela, our remarkable baby girl, Isabella Rose, and my venerable mother-in-law, Rosa. In other words, James Bond I am most definitely not. Like I said, I’m a film editor!
Anyway, back to being a secret agent…
I recently journeyed to the shadowy mountains of Sundance, Utah, where I was fortunate enough to partake in the Sundance Institute’s 2013 Documentary Edit and Story Labs. It was there that co-directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo brought along me and an unfinished roughcut of their documentary. The objective: to disappear into Robert Redford’s wooded lands for eight long days, workshop the film with some of the most respected and talented minds in the world of non-fiction filmmaking, and return home with a deeper, more evolved understanding of Rich Hill, the film that we are currently working on.
This year, The Labs invited a total of nine films and 22 fellows to attend the artists’ retreat, which spanned across two separate weeks. Rich Hill was invited to the second week, along with Yance Ford’s Strong Island, Chai Vasarhelyi’s An African Spring, and Anne de Mare and Kristen Kelly’s The Homestretch. A full list of this year’s films, fellows, and advisors can be found here.
Now, just to be clear, much of what goes on up in the mountains is shrouded in sworn secrecy. Nevertheless, I am allowed to note that there was a lot of talk about “edit trailers,” “river beers,” “quiet contemplation,” “mountain hikes,” “spiritual ceremonies,” and “The Owl.” But as a firm believer in the power of “movie magic” (and the protection of it), I wouldn’t dare discuss the specific conversations that revolved around the in-progress films that were brought to the workshop. As it turned out, attending The Lab was sort of a secret mission after all.
And yet, I feel obligated to stress that with the help of Director Cara Mertes, Kristin Feeley, John Cardellino and their entire staff, the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Labs have truly gave rise to a collection of programs that, first and foremost, lend needed support to the unique voices of independent filmmakers by way of creating and fostering a community that encourages all of us to struggle, fail, grapple and eventually succeed—together. This group dynamic is special. This group dynamic fuels creativity and encourages artistic risk-taking. And in the age of Skype, blazing-fast laptops, and work-from-home editors, it is increasingly rare.
I, for one, am beyond confident that all of the lucky films and fellows that were invited to attend this year’s Labs benefited greatly from the nutritive, communal support that was so generously provided. After all, I was fortunate enough to witness each documentary’s progress first hand. But much more importantly, the resulting films will eventually be sent out into the world for countless audiences around the globe to experience. And like all good stories, each documentary will deliver humanity minute ripples of creative thought that will begin to help us appreciate what it means to be human beings while simultaneously bringing us all a little bit closer to an understanding of each other in the process. The audiences will never know about the discussions that were had up in the mountains of Sundance, Utah. They will never have an understanding of the many creative decisions and re-decisions that were made in the edit room. And frankly, they shouldn’t need to be privy to any of this, because hopefully, the audience will just enjoy the damn movie. That’s the point!
And so, as I sit in my apartment in midtown Manhattan, my mind drifts back to my experience in the woods. Most of all, I take great solace in knowing that there is, in fact, a family of like-minded secret agents out there. And it was an honor to have met them.
Over and out.