UC Berkeley alumna Veronica Selver talks documentary, collaboration, Bay Area

Photograph from the film, "IRMI"
Veronica Selver/Courtesy

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Veronica Selver is no newbie to the world of documentary film. The Academy Award-nominated editor and director has built her career on social issue documentaries, including “Berkeley in the Sixties,” “KPFA on the Air” and her latest film, “Irmi.” “Irmi” chronicles the deeply personal and moving story of Selver’s mother as a Jewish woman in 20th century Europe. 

“Irmi” is quite clearly a celebration of Selver’s mother and her resilience, exuberance and extraordinary capacity to live in the moment. But the benefit of specificity in such a personal film is the wealth of nuance it brings. 

“The best thing about making a film is, you discover things along the way. It’s a very live relationship that you have with the film,” Selver said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “What I discovered along the way that I didn’t know I was looking for, was a way of expressing my mother’s pain at her loss. For so much of my life and the life of my sister, we wanted to avoid reminding her of her pain.” 

She admits, upon reflection, that the most personal stories can sometimes be the most powerful. “It’s very satisfying, I will say,” Selver said about the process of making this film. “Even before anyone saw it and we were finished, there was a feeling of satisfaction that we had completed something we really wanted to do. In that sense, the first real sense of completion was when the film was done. The next is when the film gets seen.” 

Susan Fanshel, whom Selver has previously collaborated with on “KPFA on the Air,” co-directed “Irmi” and was a valuable creative force of the project. “This is a collaboration with my dearest friend, Susan Fanshel,” Selver said. “We went to high school together, she knew my mother it’s really a joint project. She was totally instrumental in the making of the film.” 

Most strikingly, the film relies and does best with certain crucial, emotionally charged moments that map the ups and downs of Irmi’s life. The instruments and devices it uses to achieve this effect are both subtle and powerful. 

“There’s no set formula,” Selver said. “One thing I will say, though moments of silence are important. With my mom’s memoir, sometimes we left words out to fill in with silence, which sometimes gave more feeling than words themselves.”

The film is also an archival marvel. The narrative is constructed through a careful assortment of the various media, including location photographs, sketches and old videos. 

“We used archives from France, from England, from Germany, from the U.S., from Holland, and we worked with a wonderful archivist. She did all kinds of research,” Selver explained. “My mother, as a surprise film, made a film for my father when he turned 50. All the black-and-white footage of us as kids that’s from a film that my mother had made in 1951. So we had a family treasure, I must say.”

As a UC Berkeley alumna and resident of the city, Selver admits there exists an inherent influence of the Bay Area and Berkeley on political thought and filmmaking and in her case, both. 

“I was not in Berkeley in the ’60s, but it spoke to a student movement that was nationwide. ‘KPFA on the Air’ was much closer to my experience as a filmmaker at the time. It’s a very valuable radio station. … It was a real presence in my life,” Selver said. “I loved the variety, the spirit of the station, the values, the fact that it was listener sponsored. It did interact very much with my life in Berkeley.” 

“If we were to look at the films coming out of the Bay Area, it would be interesting to see how similar in spirit they are in relation to their subject matter, which very, very often has a political component,” Selver continued. “All kinds of films are made here that are part of the spirit of the people who make them and that’s very much what our region has.” 

Selver, an unabashed lover of the documentary format, brings this spirit to the genre itself. 

“One of things I really like about documentary films is that they can take us elsewhere,” she said. “There’s such a sense of being able to understand and perceive another culture. Feature films can do that too, of course. But documentaries really do that on a starting basis.” 

On an honest, personal level, much like the documentary itself, Selver reflected on her favorite part of the film with a good-natured chuckle. 

“One of the things I liked about making this film was that I spent a lot of time with my mother while I made it,” she said. “I enjoyed that so much. Time spent with Irmi.” 

Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].