This is the fifth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing. Our guide is 2014 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum.

In the past year, Nusbaum has edited Tough Love (to broadcast on July 6, 2015 on POV), Florence, Arizona, and The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, set to premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

As Nusbaum’s year as Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow comes to a close, he and one of his mentors, Jonathan Oppenheim – whose credits include Laura Poitras’s The Oath (POV 2010), Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life (POV 2013) and Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary Paris Is Burning – discuss the editing process with a year’s worth of conversations about the art of editing behind them.

Colin Nusbaum: How do you think about editing documentary film and what informs your process while you’re working?

Jonathan Oppenheim: In a documentary, pieces are collected, extremely partial fragments of reality. In fact, they’re very strange pieces because everyone in these fragments of reality is aware that they’re being filmed. It’s a very interesting kind of medium to work with. It’s an extraordinary medium to be able to manipulate fragment and to find what your own intention is in relation to it.

Jonathan Oppenheim. Photo by Getty Images.

Jonathan Oppenheim. Photo: Getty Images

One of the practical struggles of trying to make a non-fiction film into art is that it’s not necessarily understood that you’re writing from footage and fragments. I’ve said that you have to think of a non-fiction editing schedule as if you were writing seven drafts of a fiction screenplay. You have to add that kind of timeframe. Seven was just a convenient number, but you can easily replace that with 60. It’s chaotic. You didn’t write a screenplay, you didn’t shoot the coverage, you’re not directing actors – it’s another animal.

Some editors actually edit during the screening process. I don’t. I prefer a pure state of absorptive, passive torment because I feel like I get a deeper relationship to what I feel about it. I also believe that documentary editing is not just a writing process, but also in fact an expression of my feelings about life, my vision of life expressed through the lens of a subject.

Colin Nusbaum: Sometimes I struggle with how I’m supposed to answer when I am asked the question of what a film is about. In the simplest way, a documentary might be about a certain subject matter, but through the process of the edit we might work to excavate something more essential from the footage. How do you find an answer to the question of what a film becomes about?

Jonathan Oppenheim: The search for me simply begins with the things I react to most strongly. I might not see how they are going to fit together, but I’m looking for clues. For me, this process is about looking for clues, and the clues are visceral and conceptual.

If someone asks me what a film is about, sometimes I’m so bored with my answer that I can’t even say it one more time. When I’m not bored with my answer, it’s a good sign, like something has shifted. Often, documentaries don’t have plots, they have situations or something that you can’t call a plot. I think plots are overrated. I think what’s great about a documentary or a real non-fiction film is that the structure is dictated to you by the material, by the gaps and by the presences of different things in the material.

One of the great things about editing Paris is Burning, the first full-length documentary that I did, is that it made a huge impression on me because there was no plot. It was a portrait of a world, but there were characters in it. The structure had to be slowly discovered. It made an impression on me, sort of an indelible impression that this was a medium that had its own laws. It was sort of the birth of my own sensibility as a filmmaker, as an editor of non-fiction films.

The other thing about Paris is Burning was that everybody talking to the camera was both performing and expressing themselves in a deep way. It made me see interview as behavior rather than information.

Colin Nusbaum: When I first fell in love with documentaries, it was because I fell in love with seeing the behavior of people [on film]. Sometimes it seems more readily available in a vérité scene, but it can be refreshing to see it in interviews, too.

Jonathan Oppenheim: An interview really is a vérité scene; scene, in which someone is talking to the camera. If it’s experienced that way, it alters the feel of the film.

Colin Nusbaum: I’ve found that the behavioral or emotional information you might be getting is something that maybe the speaker is not always aware of.

Jonathan Oppenheim: I totally agree. I think that even though people are aware that they’re on camera, they are not necessarily aware of what they’re emanating. People don’t see themselves in general. Being on camera does not necessarily make them more visible to themselves. What you see in a lot of non-fiction films are people who are not fully aware of what they’re showing you. You’re sort of there to catch it and work with it and reflect. You use it to shape your narrative, but you also want to be true to them. Intention comes in – your intention is to be true to your own vision of reality – but also, they’re at your mercy.

Colin Nusbaum: The subject’s intention, not the directors?

Jonathan Oppenheim: I’m talking about the editor’s intention. You can stab your subject in the back, you can decide if they deserve to be [stabbed], but I feel like there’s a way in which you can be very fair. I think with the subject of The Oath, Abu Jandal, [Osama] Bin Laden’s bodyguard, there was a concern that he wouldn’t like the film because we were revealing many elements of his personality, and raising some questions.

He really responded very positively to the film, and he said that he felt seen. If a subject feels seen by the film, that’s what I mean by having the right kind of intention as an editor and as a director.

The Oath

Abu Jandal, the subject of Poitras’s film The Oath

Colin Nusbaum: Switching gears a little bit, what is your experience with collaboration?

Jonathan Oppenheim: I’ve had very different kinds of experiences with collaboration. With Children Underground, I worked for eight months alone essentially, then Edet [Belzberg, the director of Children Underground] and I worked together for another six months very closely. I believe that it’s important for the editor to work alone until it isn’t.

What I mean by that is that you are trying to preserve some kind of distance. If you are working together from the beginning, nobody has any distance right from the start. The director comes in having no distance, then you lose your perspective once you start working with the footage. You want to preserve some sort of separation. It’s productive to preserve it for as long as you can. And sometimes working alone continues to the end.

With Arguing the World, I worked for alone for a long time, but then Joe Dorman [director of Arguing the World] and I worked very, very closely together because that was right for that film. Sometimes it’s good to be left alone and keep that separation happening. It’s very, very specific to the chemistry of the two people: the editor and the director, and also the material. When I approach a film I say I need to work by myself and have you come in to look at stuff. Sometimes that shifts, and you have to be flexible. You’re in the jungle, you hear a lion roaring over there, you go in the other direction. That’s a bad metaphor, but it’s basically being sensitive to the environment of what you’re working on.

Colin Nusbaum: There seems to be a game of remaining fresh to the material. I think that’s what you’re speaking about when you talk about distance – How do I continue to be fresh to this material?

Jonathan Oppenheim: I think that freshness is complicated, how do you retain your innocence towards the material? In a certain sense you can’t, and at some point along the line you have to trick yourself. Bring outsiders in to watch and see it through theirs eyes, for instance.

Colin Nusbaum: It requires vision and humility in a certain way. You have to be willing to stick to your guns but also be willing to admit when you’re wrong.

Jonathan Oppenheim: A lot of battles take place because, in my experience, both the editor and the director feel that the other is going to destroy the film. If you have a relationship that can contain that emotional friction productively, that’s good. They’re vision battles. They’re battles about the possibilities, or the impossibilities. Good chemistry is very important, but for me good chemistry equals that you respect each other’s process.

There are people that you can have a very productive battling relationship with, and there are people you can’t battle with at all because they don’t want to battle, and you have to find another way to approach. Not everyone’s going to have that particular emotional facility.

Part of the collaborative process is understanding and listening to the way the director talks about their experience of the shooting – why they did it, what their intention is – and letting that inform part of what you see while also having your own impressions.

Colin Nusbaum: How do you know when a film is done?

Jonathan Oppenheim: Sometimes I can’t look at a film that I’ve finished for three years without only seeing what isn’t done, what I would have of done or what I wanted to do. There’s a point when you need to have the wisdom to drop the process and say “This film is done.” Part of the trick of finishing a film is to know when to stop second-guessing yourself. Second-guessing is an integral part of editing. To know when and where to stop doing that is critical to the process. How do you know this? I don’t know. It’s a combination of having finished some films and felt those emotional touchstones, felt the right amount of feeling, and knowing things were not as “perfect” as you would’ve wanted them to be. Also from having seen the damage over- thinking or over second-guessing can do.

It’s like finishing a painting, if you look at it, there’s a certain balance you arrive at. The thing about a painting is that if you change one thing everything changes in the painting. It’s a little bit like that in a film. It’s not quite as brutal and immediate, but basically there’s a kind of balance in a painting that you are satisfied with. You can overwork a painting, and you can overwork film.

Colin Nusbaum: I respond to this notion of balance, but at the same time there’s this other thing where you allow films to have a sort of complexity that has some stray ideas, stray hairs, or stray paintbrush strokes in your painting that actually add to the painting.

Jonathan Oppenheim: When I say balance, I’m including a lot of stray paintbrush hairs. I feel like my sense is that you should have the intention to include everything in a film, you should intend complexity. Sometimes that means including things that don’t obviously fit. I think that non-fiction naturally pushes you in that direction.

The idea of balance is really balance on a very large canvas. If you look at a de Kooning painting, sometimes it looks like a lot of chaos, but you’re looking at a painting and it’s having an effect. It’s having a specific effect. It’s having an intentional effect. Those paintings are bursting with a tremendous amount of visual complexity that you don’t think of, it’s not like a Miró or a Klee. You’re trying to embrace as much as the world as your subject will allow in the canvas of your film.

The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. The fellowship is awarded annually to one emerging documentary film editor.

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Yvonne Ashley is a producer with POV Digital.