Q&A with Sarah Garrahan, MFA EDA ’14, Documentary Editor, Periphery Post
In this interview with the Duke Entertainment, Media & Arts Network (DEMAN), Sarah Garrahan, MFA EDA ’14, shares advice for students planning to pursue a career in filmmaking. “Stay true to what drew you to this industry in the first place. For me, it’s telling stories that move us toward equity,” she says.
What are 2-3 ways your Duke experience helped prepare you for your current career role and/or previous roles?
As an MFA student in Duke’s Experimental and Documentary Arts program, I was exposed to artists working in various mediums within the documentary space. I was inspired by their different approaches within the framework of non-fiction storytelling—the program groups photographers, filmmakers, visual artists and performance artists together in one space. Our critique sessions were a lesson for the world outside of academia and something I reflect on frequently as I’m receiving feedback from peers in the industry or giving notes on cuts. It’s important to hear how audiences may be responding to your work. While this process can be painstaking, I believe collaboration is an integral part of the storytelling process. You cannot produce work in a vacuum. The MFA program also introduced me to directors and artists who were experimenting with documentary form and pushing the boundaries in really interesting ways. That informed my journey after the program as I sought out directors and collaborators to work with.
How did you make the transition from Duke to your career? What are a few helpful takeaways from your first years out of Duke?
It wasn’t a straight line from academia into the documentary field. I spent a few years trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. These days, there are a lot of opportunities for visual storytelling, so it can be hard to narrow in on a focus. I spent time working in restaurants, delivering groceries for Instacart, and working on whatever project that would hire me. I finally landed a paid internship in Los Angeles with the Sundance Documentary Fund, thinking that a career at an established institute might grant me fulfillment and financial security. I quickly realized that while I value the work being done at that level, I really wanted to be part of the making of documentary films. I ended up cold-emailing Alex Rivera, a filmmaker whose work I had been introduced to at Duke (shoutout to professors Pedro Lasch and Claudia Milian), and began another internship with him and his co-director Cristina Ibarra on a documentary film called The Infiltrators. I ended up working with them for three years and was promoted to co-producer and additional editor on the film.
How did you decide what you wanted to do after Duke? And how did you make transition(s) to different fields?
I knew I wanted to work on issues I care about and within the documentary field broadly, but I didn’t narrow in on editing until some years after graduating. I had always edited my own films and loved the process, but it wasn’t until I saw the inner workings of the industry that I decided to go full force into it as my career. Once I put the label of “documentary editor” on, it clicked. Defining myself in an industry with so many different paths was key. As an editor, I’ve been able to collaborate with so many incredible teams, pour my soul into the things that matter to me, and be very involved in the creative process.
What is your favorite thing about working in your profession? Most challenging?
Meeting other artists who are committed to making work that shakes things up, whether stylistically or systematically, has been very rewarding for me. I revel in those moments when we’re together as a team trying to figure out how to make something work, whether it’s a story beat or a visual component. The process of taking the edit apart again and again requires so much patience, but seeing the finished result makes it all worthwhile.
What are 2-3 pieces of advice you would offer to a student interested in your field(s)?
When I first moved to LA, someone gave me a piece of advice that I thought was really odd. They said, “Just show up and be consistent. Most people don’t even do that.” I found that to be very true. Show up, be reliable, and treat your work with care. But boundaries are also so important, especially for folks who are early on in their careers. I worked too many hours for little pay. It shouldn’t be that way and I don’t believe in the idea that people need to “put in their time.” We all deserve rest, and unfortunately sometimes in this industry you have to be super clear about what a work/life balance means for you. My third piece of advice is to stay true to what drew you to this industry in the first place. For me, it’s telling stories that move us toward equity. That is my rock when the ground below me feels unsteady.