Remembering Karen Schmeer

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Yance Ford

POV’s series producer Yance Ford remembers editor Karen Schmeer, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident on January 29, 2010.

How do you begin to make sense out of insanity? How do you reconcile the normality of last week with this week — when the world has turned on its head? That’s what a sudden death feels like. When the death is compounded by tragic circumstance and youth, it becomes that much more difficult to comprehend. When Karen Schmeer was killed last Friday night, most of the documentary community was focused on Sundance 2010 as it was winding down. Like many, I learned of Karen’s death when filmmaker Laura Poitras mentioned her passing while accepting the Sundance Cinematography Award for The Oath.

Karen Schmeer

Karen Schmeer. Photo by Garret Savage, via AJ Schnack of All These Wonderful Things.

I was not fortunate enough to know Karen Schmeer personally, but I am intimately familiar with and genuinely grateful for her body of work. Among the films she edited were The Fog of War, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Sergio, Standard Operating Procedure and The Same River Twice. Each of those films — and by extension, Karen — has taught me what is possible in documentary; they’ve taught me that characters and events, individual stories and our nations’ history are often intertwined. When I saw Sergio at the True/False film festival last year, I was stunned by how affecting it was. Though I knew Sergio Vieira de Mello‘s fate before the film began, there was actually a moment, in the dark of the theater, when I thought he might be saved. That moment was created by Karen Schmeer. Her editing brought such urgency, and held the audience so completely, that Sergio’s death landed as if it were the fist time I’d learned of it. It takes a gifted editor to make the past come alive, and Karen’s immense talent is on full display in all every film she cut.

A few days ago, I reached out to Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini, the directors of Well-Founded Fear. The film was a landmark for POV when it aired ten years ago. Well-Founded Fear was also Karen’s second editing gig. What follows is a remembrance of Karen Schmeer by Michael and Shari. We invite you to share your remembrances of Karen in the comments below.

Shari Robertson

Michael and I got to know Karen at that wonderful moment when she was just starting out. Her reel, for a short time, consisted of basically one title — Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. But from the minute she walked into our office in response to an ad for an editor, it was pretty clear she was a real editor. We’d been looking for somebody young and very smart, but strong enough to be a counter to all the insider insight we knew we’d be trying to drag from the shoot to the edit. Karen was that person, and we were so happy to get started with her.

Even then, she could cut like a dream. I know for a fact some sequences from her early rough cuts ended up in the final version of Well-Founded Fear almost untouched. She put her stamp on the film in the months she worked on it.

In the ten years since, Karen put her stamp on a lot more films, memorable and important ones. Her resume grew so fast. She was a real editor, alright — brilliant and funny, the kind of collaborator who keeps us all in this business. We were lucky to have known her. And it hurts to think about all the brilliant work she didn’t get to begin.

Yance Ford
Yance Ford
Yance works closely with POV's executive director and programming director to evaluate films submitted to POV She is instrumental in curating the series, a showcase of acclaimed documentary film on PBS. Yance frequently represents POV | American Documentary at conferences, festivals and markets, procuring work from filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Yance also oversees POV's annual call for entries, which yields upwards of one thousand entries, and coordinates POV's annual programming advisory board. Yance is a Programming Consultant and Pre- Screener for film festivals around the country, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, the Newport International Film Festival, Latino Public Broadcasting, Creative Capital and the Sundance Film Festival. She has served on festival juries at Full Frame and Silverdocs, appeared on panels at Sunny Side of the Doc and DocuClub and served on the IFP Advisory Committee. A graduate of Hamilton College and the production workshop at Third World Newsreel, Yance is a former Production Stage Manager for the Girls Choir of Harlem and has worked as a Production Manager on numerous independent productions for the Discovery Health and History channels. Ford has also worked in various capacities on the documentaries The Favorite Poem Project, Juanita Anderson, Executive Producer, Brian Lanker's They Drew Fire (PBS), and Barry Levinson's Yesterday's Tomorrows (Showtime). Yance's favorite documentaries include: 1. Hands on a Hard Body 2. Tongues Untied 3. Harlan County, USA 4. Cul de Sac 5. When We Were Kings 6. The Thin Blue Line 7. Night and Fog