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Remembering Jeffrey Tuchman

By Tom White

Jeffrey Tuchman, filmmaker, educator and former IDA Board member, passed away Saturday night, September 2, following a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was surrounded by friends and family at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

Tuchman's career—as documentary director, producer, enabler and mentor—spanned three decades, during which he earned Peabody and Emmy Awards for Voices of Civil Rights, an oral history of the civil rights movement. Other works include the four-part series Mavericks, Miracles & Medicine, about the history of medicine; and The Man from Hope, which he created for then-candidate Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign. That film earned him a Pollie Award, and Tuchman later advised other political campaigns, including then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid for President.

Among the projects Tuchman was working on at the time of his passing including Testimony, about his father, a Holocaust survivor, who returned to Germany to testify in a war-crimes trial against the Nazi who had murdered his mother; a six-part public television series on poverty and health in California; and MIXED, produced by Tuchman and directed by Caty Borum Chattoo and Leena Jayaswal, about biracial and mixed-race identity in America.

In addition to his filmmaking and political consulting careers, Tuchman taught documentary filmmaking at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and served on the IDA Board of Directors in 2006 and 2007.

We reached out to some of Tuchman's many friends and colleagues for their reflections. Here’s a sampling (including one from me):

"Jeff Tuchman offered me my first film job. I was packing for a weeks-long trip to the Himalayas when he called with a proposal: 'So... there’s this guy in Utah with eight wives and 13 kids. I want you to go live with them for two months.' Then he asked me to do something even crazier: 'I need to show our team you know how to tell a story. Didn't you tell me you know how to pack the back of a yak for a mountain expedition? Yes? Good. So... show me how it gets done.' I was doubtful: 'Does anyone actually care how to pack a yak?' To which he replied, 'I do. Drop off the tape on your way outta town.'

Jeff was so confident, and anyone who has ever sat opposite his camera knows this. Jeff knew how to make us stronger than we felt inside. That was not just his intellect; it was his essential kindness.

The Pack a Yak film was 20 years ago. With Jeff, there were so many more firsts: Exhilaating rides through Central Park in his convertible…my first California Roll…my first cup of Mariage Frere tea. Once, watching me captivated by a photograph in a gallery, he bought it for me, giving me my first piece of 'real' art. Jeff was foremost my friend, but he was also my teacher. When I would have a sleepless night before a shoot, he told me about all the good sleepers out there who possess the 'That's Good Enough gene' and that, I should thank God, I don't have it. It was Jeff who first told me to set aside two years of my life to make the most important movie I'd ever make. And this is a big one: he was the first person to look me squarely in the eye and tell me, 'Irene, you are a filmmaker.'"

--Irene Taylor Brodsky

"The world lost a beautiful, irreplaceable soul last Saturday night, and I lost one of my most treasured people. Jeffrey Tuchman was my dear friend, creative collaborator, mentor, confidant, and fellow adventurer in happy chaos. Many know of his award-winning legacy in documentary film—not just his prolific career, but the nuanced highlights that made him unique. His contributions range from his Peabody- and Emmy-Award-winning Voices of Civil Rights to the legendary political classic, A Man From Hope, to works created to enlighten and inspire, on topics ranging from mental health to racial disparities and so much more. But his devotion to improving the conditions of the world, through the emotional intimacy of storytelling, was matched only by his fervent dedication to his beloved friends and loved ones.

He was, to use his favorite superlative, extraordinary—devastatingly charming, incredibly generous, insightful, unfailingly kindhearted, creatively and intellectually brilliant, and wickedly funny. We were in a long creative meeting together on the day I went into labor with my first baby, so he always lives in that special memory. He was an indispensable partner in the most intimate film project of my life, MIXED, and his artistic spirit is deeply embedded within it.

But the magic of Jeffrey, I think, is this: He truly embodied the idea that life is far too fleeting to ever pass up an opportunity to connect, to express love, to have spontaneous fun, and to devote oneself to meaningful work. He was never too busy, despite consistently juggling 18 projects simultaneously, to meet in any city for an epic existential session over wine or coffee, and he was never unavailable for an urgent call—about anything.

As a friend and a collaborator, he was my unconditional, unequivocal champion, and he was quick with a kind, non-judgmental word to fix my mistakes or gently provide a new way of seeing. He regularly sent spontaneous little notes like, 'Have I told you lately how much I adore you?' To be fortunate enough to know this remarkable man, and to be loved by him, was one of the great gifts of my life.

On his way out of this life, he was surrounded by people who loved him, singing to him as he departed. His passing, although early by at least 100 years, was as cinematic and meaningful and unforgettable as he was—a gift of love and connection that we will never, ever forget.

Without question, he left the world so much better than he found it."

--Caty Borum Chattoo,
Filmmaker; Co-Director, Center for Media & Social Impact

"Where should I start with my friend and colleague Jeffrey Tuchman? He was friend, teaching coach, personal advisor and an ear for a new filmmaker struggling with fundraising. But before any of that, he was my colleague at Columbia Journalism School, where we taught Documentary Workshop every Spring Semester together. Jeffrey always had ideas for those who were stuck with either the narrative or technical ends of the craft. He had a compassionate ear for the students. Over the weekly dinners after class, we became fast friends. I trusted him implicitly, and I always admired his work. The world will be dimmer, my life will be dimmer, without him. Peace, Jeff, until we meet again."

--June Cross
Filmmaker; Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

"It's a shock that Jeffrey Tuchman has left us. The speed of his passing has left many reeling, wondering how to put our lives back together without Jeff in them.

We are bereft of a penetrating intellect. A razor-sharp wit. Bottomless generosity. Immense heart. And one of the radiant lights of documentary filmmaking.

Jeff was a brilliant producer and director of award-winning documentaries, and, in addition to his own fine work, he made countless uncredited contributions to so many films. He loved the documentary form, and the name he chose for his company says it all: Documania.

Beloved by legions, Jeff always put his friends and family first. He made everyone he knew feel respected, appreciated, heard. He was a great mentor to so many.

He passed peacefully, bathed in the love, and tears, of good friends and his incredible brother and sister-in-law. How privileged I felt to be there, and to have known Jeffrey Tuchman for every one of the 19 years I got to share with him. Our best tribute will be to make work that helps the world, and be good friends."

--Lynne Kirby
Executive Producer, Nutopia

"I didn't know Jeffrey for very long. I wish I had. We met during IDA's first GETTING REAL conference, in 2014. It was the end of day one, and he approached me in his signature all-black. He introduced himself as an ex-IDA Board Member, told me how great I'd been on stage that morning, and the next thing I knew he'd pulled me into a massive bear hug. How could I resist? I instantly felt like I'd found an old friend in Jeffrey. Out and about in the doc world, he was always a delight—the person you'd want to seek out when you were tired of small talk. He always had a conspiratorial smile on his face, eyes twinkling, looking like he was always ready to get into some good trouble. I remember being with him at an awards luncheon with Jose Padilha in the room. I confessed I was a big fan, and slowly but surely Jeffrey worked the situation until I ended up sitting next to Jose at the table, geeking out. I never knew about Jeffrey's legendary political advertising career until we were in the thick of the 2016 elections. I can't wait to go back and get to know him through his work. When Jeffrey passed, his hospital room was full of people who couldn't have loved him more. I'll choose not to remember him as I saw him in that bed, but instead as the giant bright light that he was, and the friend I wished I'd had more time with. He left his indelible mark."

--Marjan Safinia,
Filmmaker; IDA Board President

"It's hard to believe Jeffrey Tuchman is gone; he was always such a presence. I remember going to my very first IDA Board meetings, listening to him speak from across a long conference table, and thinking, 'This guy's good. His voice just cuts right through. Even if I don't agree with him, he's really articulate and persuasive.' Of course my next thought was, 'How do I get him to agree with me?'

Jeff's physicality—the badass baldness, piercing eyes and wrestler's build—made him seem imposing, but he was a total sweetheart. Meet him at a function feeling a bit out of place and he'd welcome you warmly, lean in for a conspiratorial joke, and introduce you to someone you didn't know. He was as gracious and friendly with newbies and interns as he was with veteran filmmakers—a true mensch.

I remember hearing stories about his career (the fact that he'd made The Man from Hope, the Democratic National Convention film that launched Bill Clinton into the national spotlight, impressed the hell out of me), and wondering whether this guy had led ten lives. He seemed to know everyone and have done so much—in the worlds of film, nonprofit social work and politics. I feel privileged to have served alongside him in giving back to the documentary community via IDA, and for personally getting to experience at least half of one of his many amazing lives. Who knew all of them would end way too soon? Not only will he be missed, he already is."

--Eddie Schmidt,
Filmmaker; former IDA Board President

"Past IDA Executive Director Sandra Ruch asked me one day if I could meet with someone she thought would make an excellent Board Member. Sandra and I arranged to meet him for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien, and there walks in, on crutches, this bigger-than-life man: Jeffrey Tuchman. We became friends and will remain so forever. He counseled me during my most difficult times, and he believed in me. I never bought a camera without discussing it with him first, and never took on a project without a long conversation with him. We argued about politics, women, men, documentaries… and all of the ups and downs of life. We shared stories of survival because of his mom and dad, and of real love because of his mom and dad. We analyzed why we chose what we did in spite of the peaks and valleys. And we cried over lost colleagues together. I feel better now that I have a guide from above now. You have been a beacon for so many. Rest in peace, my dear friend...until we meet again!"

--diane estelle Vicari
Filmmaker; former IDA Board President

"Jeffrey Tuchman was the very model of a true mensch, one who, coupled with his bulldog physique, would never be taken from us so swiftly. I will always cherish our long conversations at doc meet-ups and IDA events and programs; those were the kind of conversations you always seek--the ones that leave you fulfilled, and a little bit wiser and kinder. .Jeffrey was a deep thinker, a caring soul and a sharp wit, and it's hard to imagine this community without him. We can take solace with what he left behind--his award-winning work and the films-in-progress that we will one day see, but most of all, the indelible memory of him. Thanks for being, Jeffrey."

--Tom White
Editor, Documentary/