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A Cut Above: Editors Who Inspire Us

Monday 26 April, 2021

We talk a lot about the people who create nonfiction, but not nearly enough about editors and the role that they play in shaping documentaries.

In the run up to our Editing Masterclass with David Charap (Thursday 29 April), we’re recognising some of the most important, innovative and acclaimed documentary editors of the last few decades. 

Some work exclusively in non-fiction, while others move between docs and fiction, finding their work in each genre informs the other. Some have long-standing, collaborative relationships with various directors, with whom they work time and again, while others are fresh voices working in an ever-developing filmic world. 

Ollie Huddleston

Ollie Huddleston has been editing documentaries for cinema and television for over 30 years, working with some of the UK’s pre-eminent doc makers. 

Huddleston edited Kim Longinotto’s 2001 Runaway, the start of arguably the most important and long-lasting partnership in observational documentary. Over the next two decades, he has worked on almost all of Longinotto’s films, including Cannes award-winner Sisters in Law (2005), Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go (2007), Rough Aunties (2008), Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Dreamcatcher (2015) and most recently Shooting the Mafia (2019), which sees a fascinating departure from the observational approach.

Huddleston has also worked with many other directors, including Adam Curtis (The Living Dead, 1995); Sean McAllister (The Minders, 1998; Settlers, 2000; The Liberace of Baghdad, 2005) and Marc Isaacs (Philip and His Seven Wives, 2005).

He has been awarded two Royal Television Society awards for editing and been BAFTA nominated twice.

"It’s almost like somebody telling you what you know already, but what you hoped wasn’t true.”

Kim Longinotto on Ollie Huddleston’s instinct for which scenes to keep and which to cut,
taken from this DocHouse joint masterclass with the director and editor, from 2012.

Charlotte Zwerin

The late American filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin is best known for editing some of the most iconic verité documentaries ever made, as one of the pioneers of ‘direct cinema’ in the US. 

After joining the filmmaking group Drew Associates in the late 60s, Zwerin met and began collaborating with David and Albert Maysles. Working with the Maysles, she edited and co-directed Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970) and two films about the artist Christo, Running Fence (1978) and Islands (1987).

Zwerin’s interest in filming artists and musicians continued through the films she made aside from the Maysles, including De Kooning on de Kooning (1982) and Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988). 

Joe Bini

Joe Bini is probably most famous for editing Werner Herzog’s films - both fiction and documentary. Since Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Bini has been the editor on over 25 of Herzog’s works, very nearly every single film he made for 20 years. 

These include: My Best Fiend (1999), about Herzog’s relationship with his Fitzcaraldo star Klaus Kinski; Grizzly Man (2005), about the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell; Antarctic adventure Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which received Herzog’s only Oscar nomination to date; Into the Abyss (2011), focusing on death row inmate Michael Perry; and volcano investigation Into the Inferno (2016). 

Noted Bini-edited nonfiction aside from Herzog, include Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story (2010), Greg Barker’s Manhunt and Nick and Barney Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014)

"You have to go through the footage, and you have one thing in mind when you first look at the footage, and then when you start to put it together, it changes in your mind as to what is important. … This works, this works, this doesn’t work. And all of a sudden, 'Oh my god.'"

Joe Bini, quoted in this sundance blog.

Esfir Shub

A key figure in the history of Soviet film, Esfir Shub was born in 1894, in Russian Empire Ukraine. She had moved to Moscow by the time of the Russian revolution, and joined the Soviet state-owned Goskino film company in 1922, initially re-editing foreign films for Soviet release.

In 1927, Shub edited and directed her first documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty; the first of her famous trilogy of films documenting the Russian Revolution.

Shub discovered, gathered and catalogued an extensive amount of archive and newsreel footage, combining it with newly shot material, and pioneering the new genre of historical ‘compilation film’.

Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project has a full and fascinating entry on Esfir Shub if you’re looking to learn more about the life and career of this groundbreaking editor. 

 

Marie-Hélène Dozo 

Belgian editor Marie-Hélène Dozo has become one of the most important editors of arthouse fiction over the last twenty years. She has edited every film by the Dardennes brothers since The Promise in 1996, including Palme d’Or winner The Child (2005) and the Oscar-nominated Two Days, One Night (2014).

Dozo makes this non-fiction editing list for, amongst several other documentaries, her collaboration with acclaimed auteur Roberto Minervini.

She has edited all three of Minervini’s feature documentaries: Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), The Other Side (2015), and 2018’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? which won the Grierson Award for best documentary at the London Film Festival that year.

"The writing is editing, a huge effort carried out on 180 hours of film, which is authored by Marie-Héléne Dozo, she is my ‘screenwriter.'"

Roberto Minervini on Marie-Hélène Dozo, for ÂGE D’OR.  

Chris King 

One of the most accomplished non-fiction/factual editors working today, Chris King has moved back and forth between TV series and feature documentary films throughout his 20 year career.

In 2010, as well as completing Exit Through the Gift Shop, King edited Senna, Asif Kapadia’s ground-breaking portrait of the late F1 driver Ayrton Senna.

The film was cut entirely from archive footage with interviewees heard but not seen. This style of filmmaking is becoming more and more popular, but in its day Senna broke the mould and set the standard. That year, it picked up the BAFTA for Best Documentary as well as the Best Editing BAFTA for King.

King has continued to work with Kapadia, on Best Doc Oscar-winner Amy (2015) and Diego Maradonna (2019), as well as prolific TV work and feature films, from Shane Meadows’ The Stone Roses: Made of Stone to Lili Fini Zanuck’s Eric Clapton: A Life in Twelve Bars (2017).

Mary Lampson

At the start of her distinguished career, in the early Seventies, Mary Lampson edited three films for Emile de Antonio: Millhouse (1971), Painters Painting (1972) and Underground (1976), followed by Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning Harlan County, USA (1976), along with co-editors Nancy Baker, Mirra Bank and Lora Hays.

Lampson has continued to edit documentaries, working with Steven Bognar and Julia Reichart on A Lion in the House (2006), Avi Lewis on Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything (2015), and most recently she co-edited the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp (2020).

The relationship between the editor and director is really a collaboration. The editor is absorbing a director's vision and then looking at the materials through the eyes of the audience.

Mary Lampson, quoted in this sundance blog.

Jinx Godfrey

Jinx Godfrey’s varied 20-year career has seen her move between documentary and fiction editing, and, in recent years, two major TV series: Chernobyl (2019) and Black Narcissus (2020). 

Godfrey has edited many of director James Marsh’s films, both fiction and nonfiction, including Man on Wire in 2008, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and 2011’s Project Nim

She also edited Kingdom of Us (2017), which was nominated for a BAFTA, a BIFA and won Best Documentary at the London Film Festival that year.

Godfrey's most recent non-fiction feature film My Octopus Teacher has just won both a BAFTA and an Oscar for Best Documentary!

Lewis Erskine

American documentary editor Lewis Erskine has a way with rhythm. Having edited several of Stanley Nelson’s films in the past, including Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006) and Freedom Riders (2010), Nelson picked Erskine to edit his Miles Davis documentary, Birth of the Cool

Aside from his relationship with Nelson, Erskine has worked with, amongst many others, Shola Lynch on Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012) and edited five episodes of Ken Burns’ iconic 2001 ten-part series Jazz

“That’s me, making it work with music...A film doesn’t work unless it’s got rhythm. If you think of jokes – the joke doesn’t work unless you tell it with the right rhythm and the right timing. A film needs the same thing.”

Lewis Erskine in Variety.

Claire Ferguson

From Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Best Documentary, Tribeca 2003) to Rupert Murray's The End of the Line (2009) and first time director Adam Wakeling's Up In Smoke (2011), Claire Ferguson has edited many award-winning documentaries and has worked with directors across very varied backgrounds.

Ferguson both directed and edited Destination Unknown in 2016, which was critically acclaimed and in the official selection of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016. Her latest editing work includes Amá (2017), General Magic (2017) and Count Me In (2020).