This is the second in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer.
I spoke with one my mentors, Kim Roberts, A.C.E., about her work in the social issue documentary realm. She has edited some of the most influential films of the last 10 years, including Food, Inc., Waiting For Superman, and The Hunting Ground, that have inspired me and many other filmmakers to explore the possibilities of documentary and social action. We discuss everything from how she started out working on these types of films to how she balances character, information, story, structure, objectivity and ethics standards.
As an emerging editor, I am specifically interested in how we can wisely choose the films we work on and how the conversation around documentary ethics informs that choice. Documentary filmmakers don’t really have a code book, as you do with careers in journalism, law, or medicine, and the unspoken expectation of ethical standards varies widely from person to person. In the midst of this topical and ongoing conversation in documentary circles, Kim gives us a sense of where her own barometer lies and how she navigates these difficult issues.
Meyer: What is your process in familiarizing yourself with the social issue of the documentary?
Kim Roberts: I pick documentaries that are about issues that I already care about, but have never studied in depth. I think it’s good not to know too much in the beginning, so that you know what questions the audience might have.
I often read a lot of articles or books about the subject as I go. I describe editing social issue documentaries as being perpetually in grad school, where you immerse yourself in one topic intensively, do tons of research, and then end up with a final product that you have to communicate clearly. The biggest challenge is how to simplify an issue so that it can fit in 90 minutes and be compelling.