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MPEG Awards Lillian E. Benson Fellowship and Service Award


Lillian E. Benson & Zeinabu Davis. Photo by Wm. Stetz.

On Saturday night the Motion Picture Editors Guild awarded their Fellowship and Service Award to Lillian E. Benson, who is the first African-American female member of the American Cinema Editors, an honorary editing society, and a member of their board of directors at a gala dinner event at the Sheraton Universal Hotel that illustrated that editors are indeed all about, “finding the stories”.

Starting the narration was an introduction by MPEG national executive director Catherine Repola, who and then turned the podium over to MPEG president Alan Heim, who is also the vice-president of the American Cinema Editors Guild.

Heim said, “I have known Lillian since the 70’s and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award which recognizes her accomplishments in the ability to communicate and her remarkable grace, kindness, and humility.”

Heim explained that the Fellowship and Service Award is an award specifically given to honor professionalism, collaboration, mentorship, generosity of spirit and commitment to the labor movement.

After a short video, filled with congratulations and commentary by friends and co-workers, Zeinabu Davis, a filmmaker and professor in the communications department at UC San Diego explained, “I have worked with Lillian in the documentary world for many years. She is very generous and kind to everyone who crosses her path. She knows what I am looking for before I even know what I am looking for!”

Benson, whose body of work in the industry spans almost 40 years is most proud of the work that she did on a two-season, 14-part series Eyes on the Prize, that to this day is a definitive non-fiction examination of the civil rights movement in the US.

Davis, after saying that Benson was her “cinematic big sister”, went on to say that “the professor side of me is totally geeking out” because even though the directors garner the most attention on a film, “you all are stars of the production because you find the stories…your work is honored, studied and passed down.”

Davis presented the award to Benson who started her acceptance speech by saying of the video, “Leave it to the young bloods to surprise you! I am going to shorten this now because a lot of things have already been said.”

Lillian E. Benson,
Alan Heim, Lillian E. Benson & Catherine Repola. Photo by Wm. Stetz.

Benson said that one of her earliest jobs in the industry was working for a New York editor named Joe Stanton. She worked for him for a little over a year and he was the one who helped her get into the New York editors union, then IATSE Local 771. She said that she did not realize at the time how important that would be to her in her career. Being a member of the union ensured her union wages and protections that she had also learned the value of at a young age when her childhood was better because her father was a member of the hotel services union, Local 144.

Benson said that her career in editing “began with listening to people tell their stories and learning to tell the truth about the characters.”

Sitting in the audience and listening to those at the table talk about when they had met Benson, what shows they worked on with her and how she made an impact on their lives was an interesting experience. So too was reading through her tribute book, twenty-six pages of what seems to me to be a life well-lived.

Just to share a few of the quotes compiled by Laura Almo in the tribute book:

Frank Abe, colleague, writer, producer, director said, “Lillian Benson saved our film, Conscience and the Constitution. We had a strong story–about the largest organized resistance to the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans–but the script read more like a book with a rough cut to match…” She (Benson) came back with a new cut that “to my eyes turned the film inside out. “Where did you get that shot?” I exclaimed. “It was in your footage,” Lillian said. “And that one?” “In your footage.” By following the visuals, she built a new through line that holds one’s attention for the full hour leaving spaces for me to insert narration. Lillian made the editing process one of great joy and discovery. She is a true collaborator, and I am forever in her debt.”\

Maysie Hoy, ACE shared, “Lillian Benson is talented and well respected in the film community but it is her dedication as a mentor to young filmmakers that is legendary. Ask any young filmmakers from a diverse background how they got started in the business and they’ll say, “Lillian Benson helped me.” She makes time for anyone who needs her advice. Somehow, she always seems to come up with the right words of encouragement. She does so without judgment and tells them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

Judy Richardson, colleague, producer and educator said, “Lillian is a force of nature. She is an extremely gifted editor who cares as much about the people whose story she’s telling as she does about the craft of editing that story. These qualities were in full view during her work on the seminal PBS civil rights series produced by Blackside, Eyes on the Prize II. She understood the complex issues of race and class involved in the stories. Most importantly, she edited them in a way that those complexities were revealed but not to the point that they overwhelmed the storytelling.

You don’t have to know film editing to feel the power of Lillian’s work on her signature hour in the Eyes series: The Promised Land. That segment covered the wrenching but empowering story of Dr. King’s last year. Her visceral understanding of the economic justice issues and Vietnam War opposition covered in that hour is evident…Beyond that, the editing of the section on Dr. King’s assassination and funeral is nothing short of brilliant. I have shown that hour numerous times over the years…I watch as the power of these scenes affects all, regardless of age, gender or racial identification. It’s never just a job for Lillian. She brings an uncommon passion and intelligence to her work. And for that, all of us who worked on the Eyes series will be eternally grateful”

Benson wrapped her short acceptance speech with this, “People you mentor don’t have to look like you, they only have to resonate with your spirit. In a world that is so divisive, I have chosen to be kind.”

And to deserve the standing ovation that she received.

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