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Alumni Profile: Daniel Garber AB '13 (filmmaker)

Updated: Jul 8

Daniel Garber is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, with work spanning documentary, fiction, and experimental practices. Primarily employed as an editor, he recently won Best Editing at the Film Independent Spirit Awards for his work on Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Previous narrative work includes Sarah Adina Smith’s improvised comedy The Drop (2022), produced by the Duplass brothers, and CAM (2018), Daniel Goldhaber’s first feature. His documentary credits include Lance Oppenheim’s Spermworld, out now on Hulu, as well as Oppenheim’s debut Some Kind of Heaven (2020); Garrett Bradley’s Naomi Osaka (2021) series for Netflix; and The Reagan Show (dir. Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez, 2017), which garnered a Cinema Eye Honors nomination for editing. Daniel’s work has screened at festivals including Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, Fantasia Fest, Rotterdam, Locarno, Visions du réel, AFI Fest, BFI London, MoMA Doc Fortnight, and True/False. He was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film, included in DOC NYC’S 40 Under 40 list, and selected for Berlinale Talents.

Film was like “forbidden fruit” to Daniel Garber (AB '13) when he was growing up. “My parents didn't really let me watch TV and movies growing up. And then, when, finally, in middle school I watched THE MATRIX and VERTIGO, I was suddenly hooked. I realized at that point that this was something that could actually be a serious art form and something that might be really fun to work in.” He begins our interview with a smile. 

However, Daniel didn’t start seeing film as a potentially legitimate career until his sophomore year at Harvard, when he was deciding between studying VES (now AFVS) and Economics. “I was working very hard on a film for this notoriously difficult nonfiction filmmaking course, VES50. And I pulled several all-nighters,” Daniel recounts. “Every other part of my life was on the back burner while I was focusing on finishing this film. And I was kind of miserable, actually. But I realized that there was nothing else I would rather be doing in the world. So that was the moment when I decided, okay, this is what I need to do with my life.”

And with that decision made despite the major sleep deprivation, Daniel committed to the industry and continued to make films throughout his time at Harvard. Post-grad, the first film he cut his teeth on was THE REAGAN SHOW, a documentary directed by Sierra Pettengill and Pacho Velez, the latter of whom was a former TA of his at Harvard.  “After I graduated, I didn't have anything lined up,” Daniel explains. “I didn't actually have a strong sense of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. I just knew I needed to be working in film in some capacity, and fortunately Pacho hired me as this kind of researcher, assistant editor to help get this film off of the ground when we had zero funding. So I was working with Pacho in the early days to kind of figure out what we were going to do with this project.”

After three and a half years, the film was released. “It was a very long and difficult journey, but it was basically grad school for me,” Daniel says. “I learned on the job—what the process of getting a film financed is, what it's like to actually be a professional working editor, and just how long and winding the path can often be between conception and completion.” THE REAGAN SHOW was Daniel’s first feature length project, and he credits it as what set him up to do “basically everything else that I've done since then.”

He’s continued his legacy of working with other Harvard filmmakers: Lance Oppenheim (AB  ’19), with whom he recently released the documentary feature SPERMWORLD, Daniel Goldhaber (AB ’13), with whom he’s done many projects, the most notable of which was perhaps 2023’s HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE.

“I think it's really funny that I work with all these Harvard grads now, because that was definitely not by design,” Daniel reflects. “I think that there's a lot of value in breaking out of the bubble of Harvard. But there is something that's very unique about the way that VES [now AFVS] teaches you to make films. And there's a kind of shared language I have with a lot of people who have been through that program… And that's really invaluable. There's so many different ways of approaching the medium. When there is  a shared kernel of understanding, that makes it a lot easier to communicate with people.” 

SPERMWORLD, which aired on FX in March  and is now available on Hulu, follows serial sperm donors in their quest to help create families for those who want them most. With such a sensitive topic, it can be challenging to ensure subjects feel properly respected and represented. Daniel notes, “Our subjects have to be able to watch the film and feel that they're being fairly represented…I think that there's a tendency to view this [industry] in pretty salacious, and often unflattering terms, and not really to explore the emotional complexities of that… That was really the main mission of the documentary: to look with a really empathic and humanistic lens at why people choose to reproduce in certain ways.”

Climate change is another contentious subject included in Daniel’s repertoire in the film HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE. Daniel won Best Editing for the heist thriller at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards, but just like reproduction, climate change is the center of much debate. “A big part of the mission was to bring into the public eye questions about tactics. One of the frustrations that all of us working on the film felt was that the climate movement has been around for a long time, and it hasn't made more significant gains. Many of us have been aware for quite a long time that we're facing a global catastrophe… Part of the point of the film is this provocation– you don't have to think that the right answer to this problem is to blow up a pipeline, literally. But it does raise the question of what the hell else are we going to do? If the movie spurs further conversation about tactics, I think that that's really valuable,” Daniel concludes. 

Editing is so much of what helps tell the story in a certain way that will spark exactly that type of conversation. Having worked on both documentary and fiction projects, Daniel finds a harmony between the editing processes for each genre. “The fundamental principles are often the same,” Daniel explains, “and you're still focusing on what the audience's experience of the film is, trying to reverse engineer what would make for a compelling experience, and how to indirectly evoke emotions in the audience…You're trying to get at the same thing. It's just that you have slightly different tools.”

He elaborates: “In fiction editing you have much finer tuned instruments that you can use; you have many takes and angles of a single moment. It gives you a lot of choice over how to finesse an individual scene. In documentary, so much of it is about writing and structure, and there are so many different ways to turn the footage into a coherent story. In that sense, you have a lot more power over the final results. But your tools are also a lot blunter… But I do think that [fiction and nonfiction] combined are really fun. Being able to bring some of the lessons that I learn from fiction into a documentary, and vice versa, gives me a different lens.” 

Since he began his professional journey, Daniel has witnessed evolution in both documentary and fiction film, but he noted that the documentary side in particular has seen a great deal of change. “People are seeing documentaries as much more commercially viable than they used to be, and what that has meant is a lot of consolidation around a handful of different types of docs,” Daniel says. “There's a lot more hunger for rapid turnaround content that fits within some predefined genres like celebrity related documentaries, true crime, sports docs, adventure docs. Those are seen as safe bets, and you have a lot of streamers pouring money into those types of things instead of the types of documentaries that got me interested in the form to begin with.”

Throughout his ten years in the film industry, the main takeaway Daniel has as an editor is his perception on what the role should look like. “There is sometimes this pressure to be the editor who comes in with a brilliant idea and authors the film from the editing room. And I think that's really unhelpful. It is a social art. You get into the business because you want to work with other people… Sometimes the director doesn't have the answer and the editor has to provide it, and sometimes it's the other way around. It's not a reflection of one's shortcomings to have to turn to other collaborators for guidance.”

In addition to working well with collaborators, Daniel’s advice for those aspiring filmmakers out there is to “watch a lot of movies…watch movies that are outside of your comfort zone.” He explains further: “I think developing your taste is one of the most important things that you can do as a young filmmaker or somebody trying to work in the film industry, because it is a very wide world out there, and there are very few completely original ideas under the sun. It's important to understand where your interests lie within this huge matrix of taste.”

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