If someone had told me two years ago, when I got accepted into the CCE Mentorship program, that I would gain a mentor who wholeheartedly believed in me, who encouraged me often, and who was completely dedicated to my success, I would have said, “I’m not sure that kind of mentorship exists.” At the time, the most I was hoping for was someone who would let me sneak into their edit booth and watch them cut for a couple days or who might be willing to review my work and give me a few pointers. I figured if I received even that much guidance, I would be lucky and grateful for it. Never in a million years would I have expected a relationship that would dramatically impact my career. That is, until I met Michèle Hozer.
The first time I met my mentor, Michèle, we went out for lunch. I can still remember the feeling of slowly sweating through my blouse as Michèle quizzed me about what I was hoping to get from the program and how I wanted to grow personally. It had been a while since I had been asked these questions in such a straightforward manner. I was working as an assistant editor for a production company in the city, and I think I had grown somewhat numb to the work. I wanted to move on from assistant editing, but I felt stuck and wasn’t quite sure how to do it. At the end of the lunch, I remember rattling off my list of experiences to Michèle. Swiftly, she jumped in and said, “you should be editing. Why aren’t you editing?” Great question, I thought as I turned bright pink and mumbled a response that equated to, “I’m not sure if I’m good enough.”
Cut to a month later when the pandemic hit, and the world was spinning out of control. Michèle and I had planned a visit to her office. I was going to spend the day seeing how she worked – how she organized bins and sorted footage. Of course, it had to be cancelled, but I don’t think either of us wanted this to mean that the program would be cancelled as well. For the next two months we sent documentary recommendations back and forth. We would watch the films and then chat about them over the phone, what worked, what didn’t work, why a certain method of storytelling was effective, etc. Our lines of communication went relatively quiet for most of the summer, but picked back up again in the fall as I called Michèle every couple of weeks getting her advice on different smaller side projects I was working on. Then, in December, Michèle called me with a proposition – a proposition that would change everything.
The film was a feature length documentary on alternative education. It had gotten to the assembly stage and now the production team was looking for an editor to take it to the final cut. Naturally, they called Michèle. When Michèle called me in December, it was to ask if I wanted to cut the film and she would story edit/mentor me along the way. I’m pretty sure that I said yes before she even finished describing the project. Having the opportunity to work with and learn from my mentor, one on one? There was no question, I was going to cut that film.
So, in February, we got to work. To say the project was smooth sailing would be a bit of an overstatement. I had a steep learning curve ahead of me and, like many editors, difficulty relinquishing control. I remember the frustration on both of our parts during the first few weeks of the edit. I would watch Michèle cut part of a scene after I had assembled it and then she would watch me finish. It was excruciating. During one such occurrence, while I was editing and Michèle was guiding, she suddenly exclaimed, “I feel like I have mittens on and I can’t touch the keys!” We both cracked up. We were still finding our rhythm. It was tough but looking back it was probably some of the most valuable education I’ve ever received.
As we got into the middle of the edit, Michèle got more and more hands off. In the morning we would review the selects together for a particular scene. We’d move them around until we had settled on a structure that felt right, and then in the afternoon I would cut the whole thing together, complete with music, viz, and sound effects. We had found our rhythm and I was beginning to see myself grow.
For the next two months Michèle challenged me in every way — “why did you decide to use this visual? Are you sure this piece of music works best? Does this exposition actually make sense?” But she supported me as well. In every moment that I was down on myself or felt like I couldn’t do it, she would humanize the feeling, recalling all the times when she had felt the same way, telling me that it was normal, and encouraging me to go for a walk in the sun to get a shift of perspective before returning to the cut. Michèle was always there. Even at 10:30 the night before I delivered my final scene to the director, she took my calls of panic as I stressed about how to perfectly end the story.
When the film was finally complete (the director and producer both pleased with the end result), I did three weeks’ worth of laundry, slept for a solid fourteen hours and called Michèle. I was exhausted, pleased, and ready for a small break. I remember Michèle congratulating me and, despite my best efforts, refusing to take any of the credit for herself. “This was you,” she said. “You did this.”
Now, seven months out, I look back on this project with an immense amount of gratitude. Michèle has given me a foundation as a storyteller that I don’t think I could have found anywhere else. Somedays, working on the film was hard. Michèle would ask things of me that I wasn’t sure I could actually do. And, of anyone I’ve ever worked with, she was the toughest on my edits and my choices. But I see now why she did it. She was helping me to become a more articulate, thoughtful editor. She was equipping me with a toolbox and skills I’d need to succeed in any situation, and I am forever indebted to her for it.
So, two years ago, if you had told me that I would gain a mentor from the CCE mentorship program who believed in me wholeheartedly, who encouraged me often, and who was completely dedicated to my success, I would have said, “I’m not sure that kind of mentorship exists.” But now, I am very happy to report that it does.
Brina Romanek is a documentary filmmaker and editor. She has directed work for True Calling Media, RogersTV and CBC Short Docs. As an editor Brina has worked on films that have aired on Zoomer Media, Crave TV, The Travel Channel, TVO and CBC. Most recently, Brina had the honour of working with the team at Cream Productions to create the two part horror doc series BATHSHEBA. Brina is also the resident audio editor for the Indigenous Climate Action Podcast.