Contemplating the Cut: The State of the Nonfiction Film Editor

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Filmmaker Doug Block (left) with editors Jonathan Oppenheim and Toby Shimin.

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:

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.

This is a partial description of what I think of as the “artistic model” of the editor’s role in long-form nonfiction filmmaking. This view of the editor tends to be implicit, the view that “dare not speak its name.” My sense is that it is often experienced by the editor but rarely asserted.

There is another model, what I think of as the “industrial model.” This model is explicit. The editor is hired to work 8-10 hours a day to do a job. The job includes making sure the vision of the director is served. The job includes keeping the producer happy, so that if two hours, say, are missed on one day, they will certainly be made up on another. The job may include succumbing to pressure to agree to an editing schedule so unrealistic it can only undermine the film.

Editor Jonathan Oppenheim. © Sundance
Institute | Kelly Taub

This is a model that privileges quantity of labor as opposed to quality and undermines the truth about the editor–director collaboration, which is, at its best, a productive clash and joining of two separate visions based on two different relationships to the material. There are many reasons for the industrial model: budget, festival deadlines, cultural tendencies, among others. I’ve come to feel that we editors tend to internalize the industrial model and steer clear of the artistic model, or at least not insist on it. What I mean is, we work artistically, but because of various pressures, external but also internal, we think of ourselves as denizens of the industrial model. However, insisting on the artistic model might be a good idea because it reflects the internal realities of the form. The extraordinary uniqueness of this form is that two worldviews, one that brought the material into being and the other that is wrestling to make it live in the world, are collaborating to raise a film to adulthood. I can’t easily think of anything else in the arts that quite compare to this modality.

This wasn’t always the case. The type of film we refer to now when we say the word “documentary” is way newer than the history of documentary. Before the ‘60s, most documentaries were scripted, and shot in relatively controlled circumstances. I believe that fiction filmmaking served as the template for this approach. During the ‘60s, lighter cameras and tape recorders made a different kind of shooting possible—seat of the pants, intuitive; the birth of Cinema Verite and Direct Cinema. The genie came out of the bottle and finding the narrative intuitively through a mass of footage became absolutely essential. The demand on the emotional investment of the editor increased enormously. The editor had to inhabit the material now in order to shape it. When the wave of Cinema Verite subsided, it left in its wake an exciting anarchy of possibilities, combinations of elements, high shooting ratios, and the absolute necessity of finding a film in the footage. Video and digital threw kerosene onto this flame and shooting ratios and editing possibilities exploded.

This is the nonfiction film world we have inherited.

The industrial model of editing existed before, during, and after the Cinema Verite revolution. My sense is that it may have been at its weakest in the ’60s and ‘70s, when documentary was considered a groundbreaking art form. But it is here to stay, it certainly can’t be eradicated—budgets, festival deadlines, cultural tendencies won’t go away. But it doesn’t have to be internalized. And the artistic model can be dragged out of its cave into the daylight and embraced. It should be, because it reflects the real creative inner life of an editor. So it is healthy to embrace it and to stand behind the weight of ones own artistic process. The tension between the two models is inevitable, but my feeling is that it should be an explicit and conscious tension rather than an implicit and suppressed tension. The tension should be seen and owned, for the life of everyone involved, and in order to better support the fragile process of creating art out of real life.

Lead photo:

Filmmaker Doug Block (left) with editors Jonathan Oppenheim and Toby Shimin.