By Colin Nusbaum, 2014 Fellow
I think I inherited a skepticism and penchant for realism from my father. He liked to watch sports games, and when I was little, I liked to watch them with him. We were not deterred that our favorite teams from Detroit didn’t win very often because the journey of a game was enough entertainment. We would watch movies together too—mostly Hollywood hits or whatever reruns were on cable. At the time though, the fiction movies I saw didn’t do much to convince me that the actors playing roles were involved in situations that I should really care about or believe in. I had a difficult time investing in characters and stories that I understood to be fantasy, and so the entertainment seemed a bit flat.
It wasn’t until much later, just before my graduation from college, that I developed a voracious appetite for documentary films. For me, documentary appeared as a different animal. I found the films to be sincere in their exploration of ideas, people, struggle, truth, memory, and human experience. I recognized the captivating beauty of a well crafted nonfiction story—where the outcomes are unsure but always true, real in their complexity, and challenging the audience to consider life outside the screen in a new context—imbued with the narratives of the film.
And so, I began my pursuit of the documentary form from the other side—where the stories are being lived, captured, explored, and ultimately built in the edit room. In my early days, I worked as a production assistant on Liz Garbus’s film Bobby Fischer Against the World, and that was the last film that Karen Schmeer was able to edit. Karen and I never met, but the quality of her work and the spirit of her character are not lost on me as I begin my own career as a documentary editor. Her films were among the ones I watched over and over, as I fell in love with the artistry and the form.
The talented editor Mary Manhardt said to me recently that, unlike journalism, delivering information is not what documentary does best. In fact, documentary can offer something that is both more subtle and lasting through the words, actions or simply the look on a person’s face. I understand these as the moments when documentaries become films, cinema, and stories worth telling.
This year, I am being given the incredible opportunity to represent the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship as their sole fellow. I am completely honored and entirely humbled to do it, and I cannot thank everyone who is extending this unique opportunity to me enough. I’m especially grateful to benefit from the mentorship of three stellar editors through the year in Jonathan Oppenheim, David Teague, and Jean Tsien. Most of all, I aim to take full advantage of the many opportunities to learn, grow, and work, as inspired by Karen’s example. Over the past couple weeks, I have heard a lot of poignant stories from friends of Karen. She was clearly an amazing woman. And it strikes me that she may have been an amazing editor not only because of her because of her artistic skill, devotion and intention, but also because of her attentiveness and compassion—her willingness to meet people where they are, and bring the best out, in films and in life.