This is the second in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. Read the first conversation with Meyer.
I spoke with one my mentors, Kim Roberts, A.C.E., about her work in the social issue documentary realm. She has edited some of the most influential films of the last 10 years, including Food, Inc., Waiting For Superman, and The Hunting Ground, that have inspired me and many other filmmakers to explore the possibilities of documentary and social action. We discuss everything from how she started out working on these types of films to how she balances character, information, story, structure, objectivity and ethics standards.
As an emerging editor, I am specifically interested in how we can wisely choose the films we work on and how the conversation around documentary ethics informs that choice. Documentary filmmakers don’t really have a code book, as you do with careers in journalism, law, or medicine, and the unspoken expectation of ethical standards varies widely from person to person. In the midst of this topical and ongoing conversation in documentary circles, Kim gives us a sense of where her own barometer lies and how she navigates these difficult issues.
Meyer: What is your process in familiarizing yourself with the social issue of the documentary?
Kim Roberts: I pick documentaries that are about issues that I already care about, but have never studied in depth. I think it’s good not to know too much in the beginning, so that you know what questions the audience might have.
I often read a lot of articles or books about the subject as I go. I describe editing social issue documentaries as being perpetually in grad school, where you immerse yourself in one topic intensively, do tons of research, and then end up with a final product that you have to communicate clearly. The biggest challenge is how to simplify an issue so that it can fit in 90 minutes and be compelling.
Meyer: In your career, did you make a conscious decision to work primarily on this type of film or did you fall into it? If it was a choice, what appeals to you most about working on these types of docs? Did you go to grad school?
Roberts: I fell into it. Many of my early documentaries were perhaps tied to social issues, but were primarily character or personal voice films. I’d say Food, Inc. was my first straight up social issue film. I chose that not because I wanted to become an editor of social issue docs, but because I really like working with director Robert Kenner and I was excited about the challenge of making food issues into a compelling film. The number of social issue docs really exploded after the success of that film.
The best part of working on social issue films is that they can sometimes shift the national zeitgeist on an issue. After Food, Inc., I watched as more and more people started going to farmer’s markets or using CSAs. Even people who had no idea I was connected with the film would tell me stories of how they shifted the way they shop for food after watching that film. It also led to some legislation changes, and animal welfare changes. It’s exciting to get people thinking about things in a new way.
At the same time, I get sick of working on this kind of film. I hear about them all the time, and have to balance working on them with working on more personal or dramatic films.
[For grad school] I went to the Stanford Documentary program — a small, wonderful master’s program that only teaches documentary.
Meyer: Does the issue shape the narrative, or the narrative/characters shape the portrayal of the social issue?
Roberts: A little of both. You have to have strong characters, or you’ll have a dry lecture film. But the issue also needs to have an arc. You have to carefully structure how the issue is revealed. You build from the known parts of the issue, to the more surprising, darker material.
Meyer: How do you discover a character that will humanize the issue?
Roberts: The directors/producers do that. What I can help with is making some characters bigger or smaller in the film, depending on what the film needs. For instance, in The Hunting Ground I helped shift the focus more to Annie and Andrea — two women who were taking on their university in a Title IX complaint. They helped give the film a drive and clear arc, as well as lighten the tone at times.
Meyer: Do you find that structurally, the darker, more surprising material should come at a certain point in the film or does that vary? Does the three act structure apply here, or do you use any kind of basic structure when you start to build it?
Roberts: I think the three act structure does still apply, or as much as it applies to any doc. Many films I work on are more four acts, or sometimes more. The important thing is for a film to build, and not feel like it’s treading water. In social issue docs, it’s also very important to keep the film surprising, and have variance in tone. You have to build in lighter moments and humor. The darker material is usually more “third act” material, but not always. In The Hunting Ground the third act also had some of the most uplifting moments of young people around the country uniting and succeeding with their Title IX complaints.
Meyer: How do you discover what ultimately drives the film?
Roberts: Through lots of rough cuts and screenings.
Meyer: Can you give an example of a helpful question or questions that you tend to ask in a feedback screening?
Roberts: With issue docs, you spend a lot of time creating the clearest possible explanation of things, and then figuring out how to pare back the information. So in early rough cuts you figure out where people are confused and need more help, and build those sections out. Often you have to go back and do follow-up interviews with subjects to flesh things out more clearly. Usually I go too far, and in later rough cuts I start taking information back out and seeing if it was really needed. Also there’s a lot more structural work — shifting the order of things around — than in many non-issue docs. And of course there’s a lot of figuring out where people are bored — both from what they say and their body language as they watch.
Meyer: What sacrifices are made for story?
Roberts: Detail and complexity of the issue. I usually start out with too much information and then pare it way back. It makes for better movie watching, but certainly over-simplifies issues.
Meyer: Should an editor have a stake in the issue? If not, how do you define objectivity in documentary and practice it?
Roberts: I don’t know. I TRY to be objective. I really don’t go into these films with an axe to grind. But these documentaries are built on people’s stories, which are of course subjective. I often get shocked and upset by people’s stories, and feel an obligation to them to really make their stories come to life. Often these are people whose stories have never been told before — the illegal slaughterhouse worker, the child struggling in school, the teenage girl who was abused and silenced. I am on the side of telling their stories.
Meyer: Where do you find the truth in controversial, contested issues?
Roberts: All social issues are contested in some way. I’d love to always show both sides of an issue, but it’s hard because often the “other side” won’t go on camera. In Food, Inc. all the major food manufacturers refused to speak. In The Hunting Ground the university presidents wouldn’t talk. I try to show the truth as experienced by my main characters, and then encourage the production to fact check like crazy. I’m a big believer in getting three sources for every fact — sometimes filmmakers forget those basic journalism rules. Even so called “experts” get facts wrong and have to be checked.
Meyer: Did you study journalism? Do you think documentaries should be held to the same standards?
Roberts: I taught an editing course at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and have learned some basics over the years, but didn’t study it myself. I think one of the problems with social issue documentaries is aspiring directors can go into a film thinking they already know all the answers. It makes them less inclined to question their subjects and do the necessary fact checking.
Documentary film has a long history of social advocacy, which is great. And it has the power to take social problems that we’ve all been ignoring and bring them to light in a powerful, emotional way. But if the films come across as too partisan, and if the facts don’t hold up, I think it hurts the credibility of all documentaries.
I have to rely on the fact checking of my team. If we discover that something someone said was not true, we take it out. I’ve never had a director fight to keep something that we though might not be true.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.