• Maya Mumma: Emmy Award–Winning Film Editor

  • Maya Mumma

    For Maya Mumma, MA Media Studies '09, documentary film editing is much more than piecing together scenes and snippets; it’s identifying the arc of a story and revealing a truth about the world. “You’re writing the script as you go, finding the cinematic language,” she says. A documentary exposes us to human experiences beyond our own. “It’s the closest we can come to walking in somebody else's shoes.”

    The revelatory nature of documentary fascinates Mumma. Her films—on subjects ranging from in-depth profiles on Senator John McCain and Martin Luther King Jr. to the emotional journey of female Bangladeshi peacekeepers in Haiti—always look beyond their subject, placing it in a larger global or historical context. Mumma recently received an Emmy for editing the eight-hour film O.J.: Made in America (ABC and ESPN, 2016)—also the winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature—which explored one of the most polarizing legal trials in U.S. history and the underlying civil rights issues. Mumma says that when the film first aired, it provoked a dialogue. “People were really processing and reacting to it. I think you always want that in a film; you want people to come out feeling something completely different than what they expected going in.”

    Before establishing herself as a leading documentarian, Mumma was immersed in New York’s theater scene. She worked as a producer’s assistant on Broadway and directed small-scale productions on the side, all the while dreaming of being a filmmaker. Hoping to wet her feet in the industry, Mumma began applying to as many post-production internships as she could, eventually landing jobs that left her logging and transcribing hours of footage late into the night. But the work was engaging for Mumma. “Once I discovered editing, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I get to hold all this material in my head—people's words, stories, lives—and figure out these big-picture ideas. For me, that’s the most enjoyable part.”

    When Mumma enrolled at the Schools of Public Engagement, where she would complete both the Documentary Media Studies program and a master’s, she hoped to discover new dimensions of her craft. “I wanted a classroom environment where we learned how to think critically, where we discussed and wrote.” At The New School, students are asked to question every aspect of their work and consider the ethics of what they create. Mumma says that this pedagogy not only drew her to the Media Studies program but enabled her to launch a distinguished career. “Ultimately, I think that is what helped me become who I am,” she says. “I actually got my first assistant editing job because I was able to sit with the editor, watch scenes, and talk about them creatively.”

    According to Mumma, to be an editor is to be able to think deeply about film. In a digital era overrun by footage, the world needs sensitive and discerning editors. “You can understand how the software works, but if you don't know how to tell a story, a good, authentic, and ethical story, you can't make a good film.”

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