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Shaping Reality: Documentary Editors Discuss Their Craft at Doc U

By Edward Landler

EDITOR'S NOTE: This post originally appeared on the Motion Picture Editor's Guild website. It is republished here with permission from the author.

In mid-December, the International Documentary Organization (IDA) rounded out its 2013 Doc U series of educational seminars with Point of View: Editors on the Art of Storytelling. This lively discussion on the crucial role of editing in documentaries was held at Cinefamily, formerly the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, and moderated by Editors Guild member Lillian Benson, A.C.E. (Wounded Knee, Craft in America). The first African-American woman member of American Cinema Editors (ACE), she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her work on Eyes on the Prize II in 1990.

Joining Benson on the panel were Guild member Yaffa Lerea (Project Runway, Ken Burns' Baseball), Johanna Demetrakas (Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Angels in the Dust), Maya Hawke (Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), and Kim Roberts, A.C.E. (Inequality for All, Last Call at the Oasis).

IDA Director of Educational Programs and Strategic Partnerships Ken Jacobson opened the program by polling the audience that filled the theatre for their professional designations. This revealed largely even numbers of documentary editors and producers, along with some writers and students.

From left, moderator Lillian Benson, Kim Roberts, Johanna Demetrakas, Yaffa Lerea and Maya Hawke.

Jacobson then introduced Benson, who said, "Everyone here on the panel came straight from the editing room, and I checked with them because documentarians always tell the truth." She went on to ask the panelists how they got into documentary editing.

"I went to the Documentary Masters Program at Stanford and got into editing afterwards," said Roberts. Noting that she has only edited documentaries, she said, "It's like being in grad school. You are always being immersed in other countries, other lives, other subjects."

Demetrakas started out as a painter. "Then I fell in love with movies and then I fell in love with a cameraman," she said. This led to work in low-budget features and eventually into editing. She continued, "Like painting, you do it alone. In the editing room, you are alone most of the time."

During the editing process of a film production class, Lerea recognized, "That's where the story is told, so that's what I wanted to do ,and I got calls to work on features." She quit work as an assistant editor on Elaine May's Ishtar (1987) to work on Voices and Visions (1988), a PBS series about American poets. Later, she moved from feature documentaries to reality TV.

"I started editing when I was 12 years old," said Hawke. Her father was a cameraman who taught her in a unique way. "We took still pictures at a zoo and then went home and put the photos in order." Only recently, after working in editing for over 15 years, she said that while editing Baltimore (to be released this year), "I realized that editing was what I wanted to do."

Benson herself earned a Fine Arts degree at the Pratt Institute in New York and became a public school art teacher. Later, a filmmaker gave her work as an intern on a documentary about a labor union and then helped her get her first couple of jobs as an assistant editor.

The panelists then treated the audience to clips from their films to demonstrate the qualities of editing special to the documentary. Describing herself as working in “issue ghetto,” Roberts shared a sequence from Jacob Kornbluth's Inequality for All (2013) which follows former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in his efforts to spread awareness of this country's widening economic gap.

"It's a challenge to distill a really complicated topic to be really understandable, and I worked with archival footage researchers," said Roberts. She cut the film in Los Angeles with fresh, live-action material coming from Berkeley, where Reich teaches and the producer is based. The footage mounted rapidly with three or four cameras shooting each of Reich's classes and she used ScriptSync to do searches through it all.

She also worked a lot with graphics in the film. Roberts said, "I work with an assistant to temp out the graphics and the graphics person takes it to the next level. Then the assistant would put out string outs of material. I'm very assistant-dependent. My assistants do more graphics than regular assistant work." Benson added, "Graphics are important for an assistant's skill set."

Demetrakas screened a clip from a film for which she was nominated for an Emmy — Lee Hirsch's Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2002). Shot in 1994, while Nelson Mandela was running for President of South Africa, she said, "The movie showed how they overcame apartheid, but it's really about the music and the lyrics of the movement's songs. As the songs went around the country, the word of what was happening got around."

Intercutting high-contrast black-and-white photography with color, the sequence chosen recalled the prison experience of African National Congress member and freedom songwriter Vuyisile Mini, who was arrested and killed in 1964. The scene included a remarkable humanizing interview with the "gallows man" who performed the execution. Demetrakas commented, "If you don't want to demonize, you look for something inside. You have to have an attitude inside to find a way to make that the whole story."

In response, Benson said, "Part of the reason we work on docs is because we want to change the world for the better. That's part of the gig: truth-telling and making things better."

"I looked for music that was sad but I couldn't find any," Demetrakas continued. "No music that came out of this movement had defeat in it." Benson noted, "Like spirituals from American slave days… And now to the brave new world of reality."

With that, editor Lerea introduced two examples of her work to offer a striking view of the similarities and contrasts between unscripted television and documentary. The first of two clips she brought was a precisely constructed sequence developing the characters and rivalry of the fashion designers in an episode of Project Runway (2011-13). Her second clip was from Joseph Aguirre's Next Year Country (2010), a verité documentary following three farm families facing a drought in rural Montana over six years.

"Reality producers appreciate what I did in documentary and I wind up doing documentary structure for them," said Lerea. "It's hours and hours of footage of designers putting their designs together — cut down to show the various story lines of work."

The audience then viewed a harrowing sequence from Mary Posatko and Emily Topper's Baltimore, revealing continuing racial tensions underlying a murder that took place in 1972. This was panelist Hawke's first solo credit as editor.

Describing her transition from assistant to editor, Hawke said, "It comes down to love. You have to work with people who value you and whom you value. Over all the things you know — story and structure — you need to find that one other thing."

Moderator Benson screened a sequence from her current work-in-progress: Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor's Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. The film chronicles Bradley's life — including his rise from the Los Angeles Police Department to his 1973 election as the city's first black mayor — intercutting contemporary interviews with archival material encompassing film, photographs and newspapers.

Addressing the issue of how much the editor contributes to the writing of a documentary, Benson said, "On Bridging the Divide and Eyes on the Prize, I had to work on historical process, so there was a factual timeline as a guide. Directors are writers with verité films, but when the directors are not there, you work with the raw material which you might write yourself as editor."

Roberts responded, "I've almost never worked with a writer. At the end of the day, sometimes the editor will get a writer's credit. You make a rough cut and then it's all about refining the structure. Unless you have a narrator, there really is no writer. It's the editor and the director together." Demetrakas stated bluntly, "The editor is the writer making the story." Trying to sum things up, Benson said, "With team efforts, it's a dilemma."

A question from the audience arose about working with first-time doc directors. Lerea replied, "You have to get to know them and get a sense of their passion and clarity about what they want to do, so you can share in that passion."Demetrakas added, "And you must have good footage."

Looking at the entire life of a documentary project, Roberts said, "There's the movie you think you're making when you're planning it, when you're shooting it and when you're actually editing it. They're not the same."

Asked about the structuring of a documentary, Benson provided a general perspective: "First and foremost, it's a story and the directors tell us what they have in their head and you take it from there. It's simple but profoundly difficult."

For specific situations when the editing process is bogged down, Demetrakas suggested, "Start somewhere in a scene that you like; where it's cutting smoothly and saying something." Hawke offered, "When I find myself just shuffling things around in the timeline, I get up and try to come up with an idea, a through-line, some kind of coherent thought that will pull it all together." Lerea agreed: "When I need a fresh approach, definitely walking away helps. I get my best ideas in the shower, in the car."

Someone from the audience asked Lerea directly about reality TV's influence on documentaries and their audiences. She responded, “Reality TV does influence documentary audiences. Docs have more life now with audiences appreciating the stories in people's lives, but I don't know if reality shows are affecting documentary filmmakers.”

With time running out, Benson introduced another clip from Amandla!, closing the program as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. It depicted a song sung to Mandela at a 1994 campaign rally hailing him as "a Solomon…a Moses." It also brought the program back to a key theme of the seminar, as expressed by the moderator: "Is this film going to make the world any better?"


Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at