When tragedy struck, Lucia Small responded by making a film. After Hurricane Katrina she went to New Orleans with Ed Pincus — the Cambridge documentarian whose self-revealing “Diaries 1971-1976” (1982) pioneered personal nonfiction filmmaking — to make “Axe in the Attic.” That 2007 film explored the storm’s devastation even as it questioned the ethics of doing so.
In 2010, while living in New York, Small experienced her own tragedies. Two close friends were killed in horrifically violent circumstances within weeks of each other: the artist Susan Woolf was murdered in her home by her estranged boyfriend and the film editor Karen Schmeer, Small’s roommate, was struck by a car involved in a police chase a block from their apartment. Then Pincus discovered that he had terminal leukemia.
So Small and Pincus collaborated again. Their documentary “One Cut, One Life” is about Pincus’s illness (he died on Nov. 5, 2013), Small’s tragic losses, and the complications of making art out of life while living it. Complex yet harrowingly simple, it is sometimes difficult to watch but ultimately uplifting. In a Jamaica Plain cafe, Small discussed how and why it was made.
Q. This is a lot to cover in one film. How did you find your way?
A. It happened in the course of a year of editing. The Susan and Karen story was still very raw and I barely wanted to film it. Those scenes in which I’m talking to the camera and expressing how ambivalent I am are very real. It was a sort of diary I made and I never saw it as a film to be shown to the public. But I was trying to figure out some way to honor them.
Then when Ed got diagnosed, his story became pressing. He didn’t know from month to month how long he’d have, so we prioritized filming him. But a lot of the Karen and Susan story I was reconstructing in my mind and it was filmed at the end. At first it was revealed very slowly through the course of the film, but in the final version it’s revealed up front.
Q. Throughout the film, Ed’s wife, Jane, expresses doubts about the whole process. What impact did that have on the film?
A. It’s a discussion she and Ed had been having about filmmaking since their 20s when he made “Diaries” — whether to live life or examine it. She wants to live life, not examine it, at least not while it’s happening. She’s a painter, but that’s not about changing reality, which is what she thinks the presence of the camera does. She has legitimate questions about the ethics of what we’re doing. Whether as filmmakers we are finding the truth, or are creating it.
Q. You’ve said that the film is an experiment with two voices. How do you think it worked out?
A. Ed said every film he ever made is a comedy and once you understand that you understand everything. He shot life with a certain detachment. Like Charlie Chaplin said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
I’m more empathetic. For Ed the camera observes, for me the camera absorbs and that kind of sums up our way of talking and looking at the world. The two points of view together allow distance but also pull you in to confront the truth.
“One Cut, One Life” opens Friday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. A discussion on Pincus’s life and legacy will follow the May 17, 2 p.m. screening featuring codirector Lucia Small and filmmakers Steven Ascher, Michal Goldman, and Robb Moss. Another panel, on May 20 after the 7 p.m. screening, features Peter Davis, Goldie Eder, and Robert Soiffer.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.