CONTEMPLATING THE CUT: THE STATE OF THE NONFICTION FILM EDITOR

On Saturday, April 18, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship hosted a half-day of panel discussions with a gathering of documentary film editors, directors, and producers to discuss the art of editing. The goal of the day and future events is to shine a light on the role of the editor in the filmmaking process, build community, and celebrate an under-explored and often misunderstood collaboration between director and editor. Panelists included editors Toby Shimin (How to Dance in Ohio), Nels Bangerter (Let the Fire Burn), Mona Davis (Running from Crazy), Colin Nusbaum (Tough Love), and Mary Manhardt (American Promise) and moderators Tom Roston (Doc Soup) and Doug Block (112 Weddings). The day began with a Keynote from Jonathan Oppenheim (Paris is Burning, The Oath) included here:

                               FILMMAKER DOUG BLOCK (LEFT) WITH EDITORS JONATHAN OPPENHEIM AND TOBY SHIMIN.

                             FILMMAKER DOUG BLOCK (LEFT) WITH EDITORS JONATHAN OPPENHEIM AND TOBY SHIMIN.

The name of this series of Sundance/KSFEF events is The Art of Editing. And as a way of entering into the spirit of this panel, I want to talk about the particular uniqueness of the role of the editor on a nonfiction film and some of the implicit tensions this role creates.

An editor is brought in to work on a long form documentary. The editor initially brings distance, the outsider’s eye, to the screening of the director’s footage. But ultimately, the editor’s job is to absorb the subject of the film through the footage, to live and breathe with the material, making it his or her own, and, ultimately, to emerge with a vision for the possibilities (and impossibilities) of the film. If the editor isn’t doing this, the editor won’t be able to do his or her job, which is to find and write the narrative of the film using the words and moving images of the subject. Whatever the particular shape of the ensuing collaboration, the editor’s artistic process is critically important to the creation of the film.

So, in the end, the editor is hired to be an artist.

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