In Memoriam: Jonathan Oppenheim, 1952–2020

Tabitha Jackson

Jonathan Oppenheim who died on July 16th was an editor, a beloved member of the documentary community and a longtime Lab advisor at the Sundance Edit and Story Lab. Some of his 24 credits included Paris is Burning (dir: Jennie Livingston), the Oscar nominated films Streetwise (dir: Martin Bell) and Children Underground (dir: Edet Belzberg), Arguing the World (dir: Joseph Dorman), The Oath (dir: Laura Poitras), William and the Windmill (dir: Ben Nabors), Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner (dir: Cindy Kleine) and Blowin’ Up (dir: Stephanie Wang-Breal). He was an artist, a philosopher, a meaning-maker and an implacable champion of documentary as an artform. He was unlike anyone I had ever met and he transformed the way I think about nonfiction film. I am not alone. Here are some reflections from just a few of the people whose lives and work he touched.


The time we first met: in a coffee shop, in the West Village, in 1986, when I was looking for an editor and had gotten his name from Martin Bell who made Streetwise. Working together in a cutting room at the Maysles, in 1989, filled to the brim with white boxes labeled with names of characters and names of themes. Driving to Toronto, to the film festival, with my then-girlfriend Vanessa and Jonathan’s wife, Josie, in 1990.

Fast forward some years: Netalia, their daughter, is like, 4, and a great climber of furniture; then, fast forward to Netalia, in her 20s, obsessed with the Hedwig revival on Broadway. A few years after that, with Jonathan and Josie at Angelica Kitchen, just two years before that restaurant closed, us talking and talking until we are the only ones sitting there, and the server stops with the subtle hints and tells us flat out we must leave so she can lock up.

A year after that, sitting with Jonathan, near the living room windows that look out on the Hudson, some phantasmagorical sunset blazing over the river, Jonathan recording his thoughts on editing into my sound device, because maybe there’s a book there?

More specifically about Jonathan at work: he was a great painter of ideas and characters. A fiercely devoted and encouraging friend, he never stopped lobbing wisdoms and exhortations, whether our connection was formal and he was consulting, or we were just talking for an hour or two about the process and the principles of editing.

He was intensely opinionated: if he thought you’d just said something misguided or stupid, he could be unapologetically cranky. But that was rare. When he spoke of people and work he admired, he was full of love and praise. Jonathan’s singular and idiosyncratic way of seeing the world made him a fantastic artist, in part because he could see connections between things! And also a great friend, because he cared and kept faith and didn’t bullshit.


One of the telltale signs of watching Jonathan’s work and hearing his words is whether you feel it the day after, the week after, the year after, the decade after. Does it attach to your nervous system, resonate in your psyche, or stick to your ribs, as he would say? Can you feel it today?

Moments like that don’t fall from trees, I remember him saying. Jonathan was relentless, ruthless, and brutal in his pursuit of beauty, honesty, and transcendence. I keep flashing back. To Jonathan’s voice, the silence he allowed to exist, the compassion and complexity that transformed everything he touched. Everything he felt. He loved.

The failure of words to describe the wonder in his eyes.


“There are three things I find the hardest in this world: climbing mountains, devotional practice and documentary filmmaking,” confessed Jonathan Oppenheim, on one treacherously cold afternoon in New York. Having stepped out of his edit for lunch with two first-time filmmakers, the legendary film editor chose to talk to us about his long-standing struggles.

“Raw footage has no right to exist on its own,” he said; his soft, reassuring voice always seemed to run counter to his provocations. “And so you have to give it the right to exist,” he divined, his
words from a deep reservoir within him. In the one year and counting of editing his recent
film, he had been struggling to give “new meaning” to it. “New meaning” is an eternal quest
that leads you down the rabbit hole of nonfiction existentialism. Jonathan persisted in seeking “new meaning”—the one that runs deeper, the one not apparent. Of this, he was not
only the master practitioner but its wizard. Yet often he confessed with a humility that
almost belied his status of legend, he had failed.

“Don’t you get tired of failing?” we asked. “Well, I try to fail upwards,” he quipped, and
laughed wholeheartedly. As he spoke of climbing mountains and devotional practices,
Jonathan never spoke of how he was struggling with a terminal illness. Growing thinner and
weaker over the years, he continued to wrestle to find new meaning and soldier on for
cinema. We remember our guru through his struggles. His exemplary life continues to give
meaning to our own humble struggles and reminds us that we don’t always succeed. But
struggle we must.


In 2017, documentary filmmakers from around the world trekked to the top of a mountain in search of wisdom. Like so many before them, they found it thanks to Jonathan Oppenheim, a devoted and treasured mentor at the Sundance Institute’s annual Documentary Edit and Story Lab. In Utah, Jonathan’s deeply humane advice was so constantly quoted by filmmakers who claimed it had changed the course of their films (and lives) that they joked his playful maxims should be collected like other wisdom found on mountaintops—if not in stone, then at least on paper. So we did. It was easy since Jonathan, like the wisest of wise men, understood the value of editing: that the best advice is what’s compact enough to carry back down the mountain with you. At a picnic table by a creek that summer, he smiled as he made the final trims to this portable collection of his weighty aphorisms, and he laughed when he saw we’d grandly named it The Oppenheim Codex. Then, like so many who came before us, we carried Jonathan’s wisdom back home.


One of the last quotes I managed to write down from Jonathan came from a conversation we had about our shared frustration over the arbitrary length placed upon the running time of a film or a scene. He said, “Quantity of time is not important. It’s the intuition, the quality of thought.”

Looking back on it now, Jonathan himself captures and distills his very essence with these words. He was an incisive thinker, and his artistic intuition was his North Star. He generously shared these qualities with scores of filmmakers in the form of mentorship, collaboration, and many deep friendships over his long and legendary career. The quantity of time we had with Jonathan will never suffice, because he was taken from us too soon. However, the quality of time we had with him is immeasurable and enduring.


Jonathan and I were cousins, friends since childhood, and eventually colleagues. I felt close to him even when years passed between meetings. When we did meet, our discussions were lively and stimulating. I would watch him thinking, considering, formulating ideas before speaking them aloud. He was intellectually rigorous, with a strong moral and ethical compass. He seemed to find a magical balance between cynicism and optimism that he expressed with wry humor.

As anyone who worked with Jonathan knows, he was a brilliant film editor. Our only creative collaboration was an informal consultation on a problematic, complicated sequence in Howl. Rob Epstein and I were in New York during post-production and we asked Jonathan to take a look at it. We met at a cafe in the West Village and showed him a QuickTime file on my laptop. I remember him sitting at a counter in the corner, watching the sequence over and over, for ten minutes, twenty minutes … Several cappuccinos later, he closed the laptop and offered incisive analysis of why the sequence wasn’t working and how he thought we could fix it. I can’t recall exactly what the advice was, but I remember that it worked. He found real pleasure in untangling complex creative problems, and he was generous in sharing his gifts. He was a beautiful man with a restless, questioning mind and an expansive heart.


For me, Jonathan Oppenheim always represented the highest form of film editing. I shamelessly idolized him, or would have, if his unassuming manner allowed for such things. It didn’t. He was the kindest, most gentle, most empathetic cinema person I ever met, and it was from this exceptional empathy, his innate ability to get inside people’s hearts and heads, that Jonathan’s furious power as an artist was drawn. That, and the matchless analytic skills of his story-making mind.

Jonathan was the brilliant, tenacious postman of documentary film, always delivering through rain, sleet, and nervous second-guessing, never deterred. Nothing deterred Jonathan! He would sit with a piece of footage for however long it took to get to the bottom of. He was fearless in this because he lived by the code that if something was to be done, it was to be done the right way only. I loved that about Jonathan from the first time I met him, at a Sundance Story Lab in 2005. He was unexpectedly funny, sly, and charming, too, and he coined more mythical film maxims than anyone else ever. A struggling lab participant whose film had become “a parrot in the bathtub” comes to mind.

But if, I am so sad to say, we must eulogize Jonathan now, there is one thing we should remember above all else. Jonathan Oppenheim believed completely in documentary filmmaking as an art form—the most important and evolved face of modern human expression. He devoted his creative life to it, and he held it to the highest, most uncompromising artistic standards possible. Jonathan deeply understood drama, emotion, and imagery, and had profound character insight. He shared these gifts, humbly, to anyone who would listen, and he brought them, triumphantly, to every film he was ever involved with. Nothing but pure love and eternal incandescent respect for this incredible human being.


I have never heard another person speak like Jonathan did. He searched for words in the middle of his sentences, lifting his head up toward the sky, leaving long gaps of silence open between the words until he found the word that was revelatory in its meaning. I likened him to a goldfish reaching up to the surface for each bubble of air.

If you happened to be lucky enough to be listening to him talk about your own unfinished film that you were struggling to understand and construct, the anticipation of his words felt like watching someone pan for gold, knowing that somehow this person would keep swirling the sluice and the water around and around until suddenly the impossibility of a fleck of gold would appear.

Now we are all left hanging on Jonathan’s next word, and since no more will come, we must go back to searching for the gold he already gave us.


I have many notebooks threaded with my scribblings of Jonathan’s sage advice. Jonathan was a real mentor to me. I have included some of my favorite Jonathan sayings below:

The process of trying pushes the film forward.

Structure should grow from the material. Organization comes from the footage.

There is no b-roll. There are no talking heads.

Your title on-screen is a scene. Treat it that way.

Each film has its own laws which shouldn’t be confused with the laws of another film.

Honor the complexity of a subject.

The only thing that’s harder than documentary is life.

They play regularly in my head as I’m working. They’re his words, not mine, or my very best attempt at getting the phrases down before our conversations moved elsewhere.

I have so much to say about Jonathan. I really miss him.


Emotion, emotion, emotion.

When I struggled with the editing of One Child Nation, I consulted Jonathan. For hours and hours, we talked, and the word that he said the most was “emotion.” He kept reminding me that the most important thing about any image or scene is how I feel about it and how it makes others feel.

I hear his voice saying the word whenever I edit.


The codex tells us that editors/filmmakers must “re-imagine and reconstitute a human being from footage.” Jonathan had the task of recreating four very argumentative ones when we made Arguing the World together. They were all brilliant writers—friends and ex-friends—who had fought publicly and often intemperately through some of the last century’s most intemperate political moments. I’m not sure that anyone but Jonathan could have made the film.

I was incredibly anxious that it couldn’t be made at all before I met him, and was immediately reassured that it just might be possible when we did meet. Anyone who has worked with Jonathan knows what I felt at that moment. Other smart editors looked at the footage of my four subjects and offered interesting comments. But Jonathan saw the four men. He had a great gift for seeing, which I think was the basis for everything he did. Seeing in the sense of fully understanding, of entering into other lives without prejudice or fear or dictate, without any goal except “to re-constitute a human being” on film. It’s what Keats called “negative capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The fact is that Jonathan was powerfully opposed to the politics of some, though not all, of the men he was re-imagining in the film. And our own politics—his and mine—often clashed. We spent a year and half together in the edit room talking, thinking, arguing (of course), and laughing together. That was more than twenty years ago, and in the years since, the memory we most liked to share was the moment that we almost came to blows.

Two not-so-young Jews who had no idea how to fight physically (though were pretty good at the psychological jab and cut) were so angry and so frightened that the other one was “destroying the film!” “ruining everything!” “titanically stupid!” and “completely incapable of understanding politics!” that we stood up and got ready to punch one another to save the film from the other evil-doer. Then we somehow calmed ourselves and put our argument on hold so that we could go back to the important one—the argument that was the subject of the documentary. And over the final months of work, Jonathan, as always, drew deeply into his negative capability to create a film that let the characters speak and breathe and argue for themselves. (We managed to stay out of it.) And he made a far better film than I could ever have without him.

I miss his humor. I miss his rage. I miss his brilliance and creativity. I miss Jonathan Oppenheim dearly.


Over the course of my career, I have been on several panels and given a number of talks about editing. I start all of them pretty much the same way—I announce that I’ll be quoting Jonathan Oppenheim. A lot. Interviews are only about behavior, not content. A smile can be a scene. The only thing that really matters when you choose a job is the director’s intent.

I was lucky enough to meet him right at the beginning of my career on Jennifer Fox’s series, An American Love Story. Having told her I wanted to be an editor, she assigned me to sit behind him every day and watch him edit, which I did for three months. What an education! An education that lasted over 20 years over long phone calls, drinks at the Temple Bar, dinners at the quietest restaurants I could find. An education that included lots of laughter, occasional tears, brilliant feedback sessions, and yes, many metaphors.

Bringing Jonathan in to screen a rough cut was always the scariest moment on every job. there was always that excruciating moment when the lights come up and nobody speaks. If in that moment I saw Jonathan smile, my heart would skip a beat. If he was furrowing his brows, I knew I had work to do but I wouldn’t be alone. I’ve depended on his wisdom and kindness throughout my entire career and really can’t fathom how to go on without him. It has been a profound honor to call Jonathan my mentor and friend. I miss him deeply.


There aren’t great words for what Jonathan’s loss means, and how deeply his collaboration and friendship impacted me. His acute and patient ability to see layers of information and emotion was only rivaled by his thoughtfulness and humor. At the Edit and Story Lab, I recall him getting a kick out of his badge only having a blank piece of paper in it: “I think someone is trying to send me a message, but I’m not sure what it is yet.”

In collaboration, his insight and care was always felt, especially at a difficult moment in our film when he reminded us, “There is a time-honored tradition of following while not knowing where things are headed yet. Get close, think flexibly about the possibilities of all that is unfolding, … and just keep doing what you’re doing.”

There was a nuance to the beauty of what he pushed us to see in our films and a beauty to the nuance with which he led us closer to that place. He will be missed dearly.


Contemplating the Cut: Jonathan Oppenheim on the State of the Nonfiction Film Editor

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