The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship and the Amazing Living History of Female Editors

Victoria shares how Karen’s legacy of generosity and mentorship is helping her find her voice.

The Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship and the Amazing Living History of Female Editors
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Women belong in the edit bay. From Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor behind masterpieces like Raging Bull, to Joi McMillon, the first black woman nominated in Oscar category for editing for her commanding work on Moonlight, to Mary Sweeney, the timeline maestro behind David Lynch’s gloomy dreamscapes, countless cinematic successes have been shaped by hardworking, diligent female editors.

And one of the most impactful is Karen Schmeer, the late editor that Errol Morris collaborated with on The Fog of War and Fast and Cheap & Out of Control. Karen almost reaches the status of prodigy in the world of film editing: Fast and Cheap & Out of Control, her very first feature film, is considered to be a masterclass in documentary editing.

Standing on the shoulders of giants can be a tall order, but one editor is up to the task. Victoria Chalke is the 2019 recipient of the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship, a program created in Karen’s memory that encourages and champions the talent of an emerging documentary editor. Victoria says, “I feel that Karen brought humanity to her films, the fellowship is bringing humanity to the film industry. With how big the industry is, it’s nice to find a community here.”

Through the fellowship, Victoria gains numerous resources designed to facilitate her burgeoning career in the documentary field, including three mentors, access to key industry events, a one year subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, and much more. The fellowship created a safe space for editors to have conversations about their own challenges, Victoria says. “And I really felt like I got to know Karen through the staff and the program. You feel her presence, personality and perspective in everything.”

Victoria participated in the Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab, which taught her importance of mentorship and community in the documentary space. As she gets older, it’s easier for her to ask for help and recognize that it’s sometimes isolating to be an editor.

That notion pushed her to apply for The Karen Schmeer Fellowship, which was borne from Karen’s own generosity and eagerness to give advice. Victoria wasn’t successful the first time, or the second, but she applied again. “Expect rejection,” she says. “It’s too easy to get rejected for fellowships and grants and then not try again.” And as evidenced by Victoria’s headshot, in which she in the boxing fighting stance, fists close to her face, determination is her brand.

Victoria’s early life permeates the way she approaches her editorial work. Growing up in France, England and New Zealand, and switching between speaking French, Chinese, and English meant that the she was acutely aware of language and cultural identity, as well as how they shape our understanding of the world. It was almost like this perspective created a wiring in her brain that recognizes and responds to syntax and interpretation, and she became obsessed with linguistics. As a teenager in France preparing for higher education, this collided with her growing love of film and she was set on becoming a screenwriter. But once she took an editing class at her school in France, it clicked with her that editing was singular language of its own, and one that she could fully own and master. Victoria says, “In my mind, editing is an analytical way of deconstructing language and looking deeper. I remember thinking, ‘this is almost better than writing, actually!’”.

Victoria’s first professional foray was in the world of commercial editing. The challenge of storytelling in the 30 second format was thrilling to her, even if the workplace wasn’t as welcoming as she hoped. “This was over ten years ago and it was difficult to be a female editor. This was all pre-#MeToo and it was very much an old man’s club. In fact, people would always think I was the bike messenger and not the editor because I would come to work on a bike,” Victoria said. It was difficult for her to assert herself and find the inner confidence that she needed in that environment.

After cutting her teeth in the commercial world, a move to England followed, then, she was off to Hollywood. She knew that documentary filmmaking, which allowed her to become fully immersed in different cultures, languages, and identities, was attractive to her. “It’s exciting to try and understand an entirely different world of a character or situation and being able to mold it,” Victoria says. “It’s kind of like looking at a pile of clay that you begin shaping with your mind.”

So, when she heard about an opportunity to edit a sample of a project about an all-female bicycle crew in East Los Angeles, she seized it. Ovarian Psycos, as the completed film came to be named, was her first feature documentary edit. And with it, her connection to Karen’s legacy was starting to form.

Victoria’s other projects include the GLAAD-nominated documentary Call Her Ganda that she made with her mentor, director PJ Raval. Then, she worked on another project focused on gender and societal issues: A Woman’s Work: The NFL Cheerleader Problem.  Victoria calls it a collision of football and hyper-masculinity with the value of a woman’s work, and it’s sure to make waves when it’s released this year.

Identity and representation have always been in the forefront of Victoria’s mind, so she is especially excited about the diversity program that the fellowship kicked off in Los Angeles this year. “I see it as a positive way to continue push the issue of representation in our industry. And personally, I feel like it allows me to be myself and shine as a British Chinese person.”

Victoria recently started work on a new project about the Asian American experience, and is looking forward to the support offered by the fellowship to continue developing her voice as an editor.

On the heels of Women’s History Month, Adobe wants to celebrate and recognize all of the amazing women working in post-production – and those who aspire to. Because as we’ve learned through decades of pioneering female editors, and those who are starting to make their mark, editing truly is a woman’s work.

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