Susan Zeller, 1971-2003

Susan Zeller, 1971-2003
January 1, 2004

On December 13, 2003, Susan Zeller (née Rayman), editor of RealScreen and dear friend to many of you in the industry, passed away. She suffered severe complications following the birth of her first baby, a healthy boy named Evan, and died of a pulmonary embolism.

Susan, 33, joined RealScreen one serendipitous day five years ago, and had a positive impact on the magazine from the very start. As recalls former RealScreen publisher Mary Ellen Armstrong, ‘I wanted to hire Susan as soon as I met her. Those of you who knew her will understand – she inspired confidence immediately. But, I decided to call her references. I phoned a former boss of hers who gushed at length about Susan’s attributes, but I remember very clearly how we ended the call. ‘I must tell you,’ she said, ‘not only is Susan an absolute pleasure to work with, she is honestly the nicest person I’ve ever met. In fact, she may well be my favorite person.’ I hung up chuckling a little, thinking the woman a bit dramatic, or that perhaps Susan had slipped her a twenty. Little did I know. Today, I would say exactly the same thing.’

Small in stature and soft of voice, Susan surprised many people with the strength of her convictions and the fierceness of her loyalties. This alone qualified her as an excellent editor and leader, but Susan added patience, compassion, talent, humor and an open mind to the mix.

‘Susan interacted with the world completely free of pretense,’ Mary Ellen continues. ‘To watch her deep in discussion with someone was a pleasure to behold. Whether it was a top executive, a new filmmaker or a colleague at lunch, she was fully engaged, listening intently in order to respond thoughtfully.

‘To me, Susan embodied all that is warm and real. She truly loved the tangible pleasures of the world– in particular, an amazing meal (preferably one that featured potatoes prominently), and her family. I thought of this often when she was working late at night or when we were traveling together. It took a strong work ethic to trump the things she loved so much at home.’

Brendan Christie, Susan’s predecessor as RealScreen‘s editor, last saw his friend dancing at his wedding, where this photo was snapped. Such pictures have now taken on unexpected significance, capturing a woman determined to live life fully, even at eight months pregnant. Writes Brendan, ‘I find myself in the reassuring position of having a store of private remembrances with which I can recall this unique woman: for her yelling at me for having the gall to suggest she stop working at the end of an 18-hour day; for the careful consideration she gave everyone around her, even at cost to herself; for her immovable stubbornness when she was fighting for a cause she knew was right; for that look in her eye when she spoke of her husband James and the brimming, obvious pride with which she carried Evan.’

There are many other memories, but we’ll keep them for ourselves.

As a colleague, as a friend, as an extraordinarily kind and positive spirit, we will miss Susan fiercely and remember her always.

With sadness,

Everyone at RealScreen

‘We will always remember the way Susan made all of us feel so welcome with her questions, her passion for films, her interest for people and above all her big smiles.’

Elvira Lind

Spiegel TV

Hamburg, Germany

‘The passion she conveyed through her work was an inspiration and served only to enhance my understanding of the industry. She will be greatly missed.’

Mike Fitzer

Blackfish Films

Lexington, U.S.

‘I personally will miss Susan’s candid and often amusing editorials, as her sense of fun was complementary to the passion with which we all make, screen and watch documentaries.’

Amy Frasca

SBS Independent

Sydney, Australia

‘Susan touched us and the lives of villagers in Choropampa, Peru, in a special way. She was the first person to write an article about our Peruvian documentary – Choropampa, The Price of Gold – and helped us out with advice and contacts when we were complete novices without any track record.

More than 900 people from this mountain community were poisoned by a devastating mercury spill three years ago and Susan took the time and effort to write a great article that helped generate interest in this forgotten story.

Susan’s article helped us get the funding necessary to finish the film and now Choropampa’s voices have been heard in film festivals and through television broadcasts around the world. The villagers still suffer devastating health effects from the spill: blindness, paralysis, kidney and liver failure and birth defects and miscarriages, but the film [piqued] the interest of scientists and international aid organizations. There are now campaigns to provide health care and support for the mercury spill victims and Susan’s contribution was very important to helping bring all this about.

Ours was just one of the numerous documentaries Susan helped through her tireless efforts at RealScreen – her work and life really did touch people around the world, and she will be sorely missed.’

Stephanie Boyd

Ernesto Cabellos

Guarango Cine y Video

Piura, Peru

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