The fifth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably under-appreciated process and craft of documentary editing with fellow Colin Nusbaum:
In the past year, Nusbaum has edited Tough Love (to broadcast on July 6, 2015 on POV), Florence, Arizona, and The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, set to premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
As Nusbaum’s year as Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow comes to a close, he and one of his mentors, Jonathan Oppenheim – whose credits include Laura Poitras’s The Oath (POV 2010), Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life (POV 2013) and Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary Paris Is Burning – discuss the editing process with a year’s worth of conversations about the art of editing behind them.
Colin Nusbaum: How do you think about editing documentary film and what informs your process while you’re working?
Jonathan Oppenheim: In a documentary, pieces are collected, extremely partial fragments of reality. In fact, they’re very strange pieces because everyone in these fragments of reality is aware that they’re being filmed. It’s a very interesting kind of medium to work with. It’s an extraordinary medium to be able to manipulate fragment and to find what your own intention is in relation to it.
One of the practical struggles of trying to make a non-fiction film into art is that it’s not necessarily understood that you’re writing from footage and fragments. I’ve said that you have to think of a non-fiction editing schedule as if you were writing seven drafts of a fiction screenplay. You have to add that kind of timeframe. Seven was just a convenient number, but you can easily replace that with 60. It’s chaotic. You didn’t write a screenplay, you didn’t shoot the coverage, you’re not directing actors – it’s another animal.
Some editors actually edit during the screening process. I don’t. I prefer a pure state of absorptive, passive torment because I feel like I get a deeper relationship to what I feel about it. I also believe that documentary editing is not just a writing process, but also in fact an expression of my feelings about life, my vision of life expressed through the lens of a subject.