Practicing What She Teaches, Penn Alum Is Award-winning Film Editor

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460June 2, 2014

When the winners of the 2013 Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting were announced late last month, Nancy Novack, a University of Pennsylvania alum and a lecturer of fine arts in the School of Design, had cause to celebrate.

A film series she edited, the PBS TV documentary “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” won a Peabody.

Peabody Awards are given across a variety of media formats in recognition of “excellence in story-telling.”

Novack was supervising editor of the six-episode series and editor of “Episode One: The Black Atlantic (1500–1800)” and “Episode Two: The Age of Slavery.”

“The African-Americans” is the third program that Novack has edited or has been part of the team of editors to win a Peabody. The other two are Spike Lee’s “When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts for HBO” and “My Lai” for PBS.

“The African-Americans” takes viewers across five centuries of African-American history, revisiting racism in colonial America, slave rebellions, the Civil War, emancipation, Jim Crow and the civil rights and black power movements, while celebrating African-American contributions to all aspects of American life.

Novack says it is sweeping in its history, yet intimate in its story-telling. 

“Filmmakers are, at our core, storytellers,” Novack says. “The history of African-Americans has been told many times before on television, and we were attempting to bring these stories to life in a more accessible, personal way. It is incredibly gratifying to be honored with a Peabody for this work.” 

The production team also included another member of Penn’s faculty, Steven Hahn, a professor of history in the School of Arts & Sciences. Novack describes him as a “crucially important advisor” for episodes three and four’s treatments and scripts and calls him a “core advisor” in crafting the entire series.

“His book A Nation Under Our Feet informed our approach to the era that followed the end of slavery,” she says.

Novack got her start in the film industry after graduating from Penn in 1987 with a major in communications and a concentration in film theory. In 1989 she was hired as an apprentice picture editor on the film “Awakenings,” starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams and directed by Penny Marshall. By 2000, Novack had worked her way up to editing both fiction and non-fiction films.

At Penn, she co-teaches the course FNAR 075 / CINE 075: Image and Sound Editing, with her husband, David Novack, a documentary filmmaker and alum who graduated from Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1986.

She describes film editing as a rewarding career that, like anything else worthwhile, requires a lot of hard work and late nights. Her advice to her students interested in the business is to find an internship or entry-level job working with a producer, director, writer or editor who’ll let them sit in on all meetings.

Novack is currently editing a series about the history of cancer based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddarhartha Mukherjee. It is scheduled to air on PBS in the spring. 

An active volunteer with Penn’s Office of Alumni Relations, she co-curates the annual Penn Alumni Film Festival with her husband during Homecoming Weekend. The pair helped launch the film fest as part of the Alumni Relations initiative to promote arts and culture at Penn.

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