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Remembering Jonathan Oppenheim: The Edit Room Was His Sanctuary

By Tom White

Photo: Calvin knight/null.. ©2014 Sundance Institute. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The documentary community lost Jonathan Oppenheim last month, at 67, following a long bout with brain cancer.

Jonathan was a giant among documentary editors. His prodigious canon dates back to Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark's Streetwise (1984), which received an Academy Award nomination. Its depiction of homeless teens and runaways in Seattle inspired Edet Ebelzberg to hire Jonathan to edit her first film, Children Underground (2001), which went on to win an IDA Documentary Award for Best Feature, as well as an Academy Award nomination. And in between those two films, there was Jennie Livingston’s legendary Paris Is Burning (1990), and following Children Underground, there was Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman’s Sister Helen (2002), Laura Poitras' The Oath (2010), Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life (2013) and the last film he edited, Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Blowin’ Up (2018). He also served as consulting editor on numerous productions that have contributed immeasurably to the documentary conversation: How To Survive a Plague, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, These Birds Walk, Cameraperson, (T)Error, One Child Nation and Cooked: Survival By Zipcode.

In a statement that was published in Variety, his wife, Josie Oppenheim, wrote, "Jonathan began his life in the arts as a painter, which informed his sensibility in film. He was a talented and highly original painter, but documentary film was his chosen medium. The collaborative dynamic, while not always peaceful, was one aspect of the work that Jonathan loved."

By many accounts, Jonathan was a wise and kind soul, and it was those qualities, along with his painterly instincts, that made a difference in every documentary he brought to life. 

We reached out to a few filmmakers for their reflections on this vital artist.

I have never heard another person speak like Jonathan did. He searched for words in the middle of his sentences, lifting his head up towards 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.

—Kirsten Johnson, Cinematographer, The Oath 

(Editor’s note: Kirsten’s tribute was originally published in Sundance Institute's blog; thanks to Kirsten and to Tabitha Jackson for permission to reprint here.)

Anyone who has had the privilege of working with Jonathan has not only emerged from the experience a better filmmaker but also, I believe, a better person. 

He refused to make the compromises, even small ones, most consider necessary to succeed. He once told me how he disliked the word “professional” to describe a filmmaker. For him, the goal was always to transcend.

Working with Jonathan was a singular experience. There weren’t models or structures to adhere to. There weren’t “characters” or “subjects,” only souls to understand. For him, the film was a life.

While working with him, the edit room was not only a place for tireless effort but also a sanctuary for one’s spirit and an incubator for one’s vision.  

His passing is absolutely devastating and a profound loss.

—Edet Belzberg, Director, Children Underground

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 subtle layers of information and emotion was only rivaled by his thoughtfulness and humor.

In collaboration, his insight and care was always felt, especially at a difficult moment during the making of High Tech, Low Life when he reminded me, "There is a time-honored tradition of following while not knowing where things are headed. Get close, think flexibly about the possibilities of all that is unfolding... and just keep doing what you’re doing."

When consulting on Crime + Punishment, one of his more memorable and prescient reminders was, "Embrace the project's cascade of different people with different rhythms, values and energies...There's something so valuable that is minimal." 

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

—Stephen Maing, Director, High Tech, Low Life; Crime + Punishment

We came to know Jonathan Oppenheim when he edited our feature documentary film, Sister Helen (2002). We had a treasure trove of great material and knew our subject was an amazing character, but we were hesitant about the structure and narrative arc.

Jonathan recognized right away that the heart of our film was the deeply emotional and complicated relationship Sister Helen had to the men she sheltered. Jonathan found subtle yet exceptional moments in our footage that many editors would never have chosen—sometimes the smallest detail that opened a window into Sister Helen's world and viewpoint, creating a narrative from many disparate threads, seeing the whole in the many small parts.

Jonathan's process was not fast; it yielded gems over time—but they were great gems. He saw, in a mountain of moments, a powerful narrative that even we weren't sure was there—until Jonathan discovered and committed to it.

—Rebecca Cammisa and Rob Fruchtman, Co-Directors, Sister Helen

I will never forget the first time my producer, Carrie Weprin, and I sat down for our lunch meeting with Jonathan Oppenheim. We met at La Zie Trattoria, a cozy Italian restaurant around the corner from his "editing office" at Final Frame. We were meeting to see if he would work on our latest project, Blowin' Up. There's no doubt in my mind that we were the ones being interviewed. He had already watched some selects and came poised with questions: What was the backstory on Eliza and Judge Serita? What was my intention behind this story and this subject matter? How did Carrie and I become producing partners? This lunch lasted the length of a feature film—approximately 90 minutes. By the end, I could tell he was intrigued by the material and the story, but I wasn't sure how he felt about working with us!

Fast-forward to a few months later, Jonathan and I were sitting in the edit office talking through the dailies. He quietly turned to me with a slight arch in his eyebrow and said, "You know, I've never edited a three-camera shoot before." I nodded my head, a little frightened by this confession, but also grateful to have this information offered at this point in time. Daniel Claridge, our nimble and dexterous assistant editor, worked with him to create a workflow, and I never heard a note of complaint. In fact, Jonathan marveled at the delight in finding gems of reactions and quiet commentary hidden in these separate timelines.

I got to spend the next 13 months sitting alongside Jonathan, sipping ginger turmeric tea and discussing the "intention" of every action, scene and character of the film. I am forever grateful for this meditative and nurturing creative space he offered so that, together, we could find the right, intuitive pathways for these women's stories to coexist within the confines of one 90-minute film.

—Stephanie Wang-Breal, Director, Blowin’ Up

Tom White is editor of Documentary.