Last night, for the first time in two years of beach walking in Amagansett, I saw a whale rise straight up from the Atlantic, pause a moment in the air, and then disappear beneath the waves again. We saw other whale activity–a spout, a fin–but that was a beckoning. Humpback, I believe. Of course I thought of Nancy Buirski.
Nancy passed away, totally unexpectedly, on August 29, 2023. Devastating. I’m still trying to process how this bundle of energy and light and love could be gone. It does not seem possible.
Nancy and I met around the time she was founding the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival around 1996 or 1997. When I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, the Center for Documentary Studies came under my administrative jurisdiction so we were able to work together officially as well as unofficially on the Duke connection. We became friends.
Within my world of academe, I’m considered something of a maverick because I keep changing focus. I love to learn a new field, engage with it intensely, write about it, and then learn something new or maybe connect dots between fields. Nancy was a whole other, inspiring level of adventurous, creative, fearless thinker. She was the person I looked to. Whenever we were together, I left energized, deepened, richer—and so lucky to be her friend. It’s what everyone is writing about her now as we process her loss. A prize-winning photographer focusing on immigrants, worldwide; a NYT photo editor; founder of a film festival; and then, after all that, becoming an incredible documentary filmmaker herself. What? Who does that? And Nancy didn’t just decide to “make documentary films,” she made great ones: a prize-winning Civil Rights trilogy, beginning with The Loving Story (which won an Emmy and a Peabody), made beautiful films about Tanaquil Le Clercq (a ballerina whose career ended when she contracted polio on tour), filmmaker Sidney Lumet, and most recently Desperate Souls, Dark City, and the Legend of ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ She’d just come back from Durham, NC, and a showing of that 2022 film when she died. None of us can believe it. It’s a tragic loss to the world of documentary filmmakers and film goers.
We all lost that public, tireless, incredibly gifted and socially committed filmmaker Nancy Buirski–and I also lost a dear, dear friend. We were writing partners. We shared work when it was still raw and new and we read and gave feedback on one another’s work. For a while we met every week and worked on our writing together. I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of her “test audiences” and give feedback on her films’ rough cuts (the name, not coincidentally, of a novel series I was writing back in the 2000s about a film editor) and she gave me feedback on my writing, including on the novel I’ve just sent off to my (wonderful) agent, Deirdre Mullane. It was literally on the copy machine when filmmaker Chris Hegedus, another of Nancy’s dear friends, called me, so kindly, so I wouldn’t have to find out the news about Nancy on social media. My lovely colleague Jackie Cahill saw I was devastated and very kindly stepped in and took over the task of preparing the ms. to send off to Deirdre. Nancy would have liked every part of that.
Nancy and I talked about everything. And we listened to one another, about work, about life, about social injustice, about doing what one can where one can as best as one can. She wanted her next project to be a narrative film and we talked about ideas–although she hadn’t yet shared the new narrative script she was writing with me. That was coming soon. “This Fall…” There was always something new with Nancy. Every project finished meant the amazing opportunity to start the next one. Looking back wasn’t her metier. I still can’t believe she’s not out here, celebrating Labor Day weekend out East with us and her other dear friends, talking about another idea she’s had for … I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to have such a magical, generous, loving friend in my life for 20+ years.
She would have laughed and appreciated the irony that the very last time we ever saw each other was around our dinner table, after our trip with two other serious, political documentary film makers, to the “Barbie” movie, of all things. Her comment after the movie was typical: she appreciated that the director and lead actress had been “adventurous” when they didn’t have to be, they could have settled for lots less and still had a blockbuster, but they grabbed the opportunity for adding a social justice and equity and feminist angle to what should have been a simple, cheesy blockbuster–and they went for it. Was the movie flawed? Of course! We all are. Her point was that they went beyond what anyone would or should have expected. And she admired them for it because it doesn’t happen often enough in life that people take that extra step, that extra chance, beyond.
Nancy. She never settled for less. She was fearless about going for it. And she generously praised and loved others who tried too, even if they didn’t make it all the way. It was the trying beyond expectation that she admired and that she encouraged and championed in others. She didn’t think of herself as special but made everyone around her know what was special about them. She was the opposite of a diva. My friend. Thank you, Nancy. I love you. Thank you.