A Window to the Unknown: ‘RBG’ and ‘JULIA’ Editor Carla Gutierrez Talks About the Power of Documentaries, Women’s History, and Building Community

Written by Malin Evita

“There is no growth when feeling comfortable all the time. There’s no sense of empathy if you’re not being challenged and pushed as an audience. And hopefully, it inspires you to come out of your bubble, to come out of your comfort zone in real life. It is a moment of immersing yourself into a different world that I feel only film can do.”

Carla Gutierrez hasn’t always had the connection with filmmaking that she does now. “I didn’t watch many films growing up at all,” she tells me. Born and raised in Peru, theatres were scarce and expensive. But after immigrating to the United States at fifteen, one documentary shown to her in college captivated her in a way that would continue to drag her in until it became her lifeblood.

The film followed the relationship between an immigrant girl and her teacher in the 90s as a policy change in California would force teachers to report their undocumented students to authorities. “I felt connected to the story. I was a very privileged immigrant; I was never undocumented, I always had papers. But it really resonated with me.”

Carla Gutierrez

“It just made me feel so much, watching that documentary. The impact it had on me… I think what documentaries have the ability to do is really capture a personal story and use a personal story as a window into larger questions, bigger worlds, or issues. It is that emotional connection you can have with the audience,” she says. When she then moved to New York while working in advertising, she started going to the cinema to watch documentaries. “I just decided I really wanted in.” And so she went to film school, where she would come to discover a profound connection with editing.

“Even though it was hard and challenging, mentally, it sometimes really pushes you, I never found that stressful. I mean the pleasure of finding the story, of focusing in on a narrative arc… I just found it really joyful. I loved it.”

Editing, in general, is a tremendous job—sorting through hours of footage, cutting to the right angles, the right sounds. And for Carla, she needs to start big. With her lovely dog snoring on the couch behind her, Carla sits down at her three-monitor setup. “From the messiness I need in the beginning, I need to feel like there is room for expansion and to just throw things in, and to be able to pull back and just look at things,” she explains. She’ll spread Adobe Premiere Pro across her screens, have all of the interview transcripts on the side, roll up her sleeves, and then she’s ready to get messy.

In that way, it is much like sculpting—your footage is your block of marble, your final cut is your statue of David. You have to start big before you find and carve out the details of the creative vision.

Private: Carla’s desk while editing JULIA.

At the beginning of every project, she says, she tingles with nerves and slight imposter syndrome, ‘Am I really going to be able to do this?’ “But I think that nervousness is a reflection of passion for the subject matter and respect and sense of responsibility you have with the story,” she says. Soon enough, those nerves become electric. “When I have the space to only focus on rhythm, and when I know what my scene needs to be about, and I am in the groove of cutting, I flow with it. It’s kind of like dancing, like my whole body kind of falls into it. I mean, it makes me feel alive.”

“You are making so many decisions—you are not presenting real life. You are making so many decisions to really focus on one theme and do it well and in a way that is really gonna capture people’s attention. So you are manipulating time. You’re manipulating drama. You have to also be very responsible in what you say and present a complex picture, which I think documentaries really have the ability to do.” she says. It needs to be complex, to show nuance and more than just a black and white story of the perfect hero or cartoon villain. There needs to be integrity in the work.

“You really have to understand the intention of what you are trying to do,” she says, “the rhythm, or the emotional tone you can bring with the music, or what you decide to include in a scene—kind of the texture of building that one moment, it all has to be at the service of the intention you have.” 

The rhythm needs to support what you need to do—what you need to say and show. The music, soundbites, and the moment of a cut all need to support that intention. The intention is your guide between a landscape of editorial possibilities.

RBG (2018, dir. Betsy West and Julia Cohen)

Her ‘big break’ came after editing the multi-award nominated documentary RBG (2018). The film, directed by duo Betsy West and Julia Cohen, paints an intimate portrait of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg through a combination of archival media and interviews.

“I came to the film kind of like how most audiences did. I was very aware of [RBG’s] persona in present time back then. You know, this Notorious RBG,  a very popular, in a way, celebrity for liberal America. But I didn’t know anything about her past work—especially as a lawyer arguing cases for women’s rights,” Carla reveals. 

“The theme of the film was ‘You know her as notorious, but here’s what she’s done. Here’s her fight for women’s rights.’ So [the directors] had conducted the interviews in a very focused way, and that really gave us a good guide as to how we were gonna build the story.” And a guide was most certainly needed, because, in the composition of this documentary, Carla had to go through decades and decades of archives. At a certain point, she stopped counting how many hours of footage she had gone through. Although not because she was exhausted, but because she kept asking for more. As an archival editor, you have to dig deep and search for every shot and angle as thoroughly as possible. You are not working with footage filmed for this specific purpose. It’s almost like curating a museum; separating history into exhibitions with a common thread binding it all together.

“It is built to give the audience that sense that they are walking with her character into that scene,” she adds. The film found intimacy in the vastness of RBG’s story, and it brought out a character that hadn’t perhaps been so known to the public. “It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to combine to really give it that emotional intensity and intimacy. I always feel like, if you’re just gonna use exposition and you’re just explaining ideas—if you don’t get to the heart of people and personal experiences… If a film can be read as an article, then it’s not a film.”

After working together on RBG, Carla and directors West and Cohen continued collaborating on the 2021 documentary, JULIA. The movie, which functions as a second edition to the directors’ series of docs about outstanding women, focuses on the American chef, author, and television personality Julia Child.

“There is so much about her life, but it’s her following her passion,” she says, “It’s really the discipline of going for it. There’s so much work that she did before she started her TV show. It is just admirable; how much work, how much discipline she put into expressing her passion.”

“It’s such a pleasure working with [West and Cohen],” she says, “Film is a collaborative medium, and that’s what makes films so good. That constant collaboration and conversation—that’s where I feel like the films really come together.”

Community in all aspects is precious to Carla. As well as being an excellent editor, she is also part of the volunteer-run The Alliance of Documentary Editors and is heavily involved with their new database project: BIPOC Documentary Editors. “[The database] came about as kind of a response to all of the protests that were happening during the pandemic. Those protests opened up discussions in our community about representation and really what equity and what real diversity can look like and be practised.”

Fronted by Carla and fellow doc editor David Teague, the project features working BIPOC documentary editors where hiring managers can find them and bring them on. “One of the things that you hear from producers is ‘We just cannot find BIPOC editors with experience that we need.’ So our answer to that was, well, here’s the talent, here’s the faces, and if you still can’t find people with the right experience, can you please commit to doing mentorships so we can create a much more diverse pool of experienced editors in the years to come,” she says, “Let’s lift up the new emerging voices of talent that can become the next generation of amazing editors. And why not make that a much more diverse community? So that is at the heart of our work.”

The project has been received with open arms from producers and editors alike. Production companies have even begun to reach out for consultation on making diversity a standard with concrete goals rather than an empty mantra. This is what the work is. This is what change is.

Check out their work, guidelines, and learn more about what you can do to help diversify creative spaces in ethical and lasting ways.

Her passion for this project also comes from personal experience. While she had a fantastic year with RBG, which was nominated by the Academy Awards, Emmys, and BAFTAs, she was nearly always the only woman of colour in the room. “All the nominated people, even in fiction… there were just so few people of color. It really struck a chord. So I just feel really responsible—I’ve gotten access, I am in a situation where I am considered an experienced editor. I think that we, experienced editors and lead editors, really need to put ourselves out there to support emerging voices and make that new generation more equitable.”

Looking back at what she has accomplished and the person she was back when she first began testing the waters, there’s not a lot she would have changed. But if she could say one thing to her younger self and any aspiring editor reading this right now, it would be to find community in your industry. “It has been really lovely to feel companionship. I am a part of a community where we really care for each other, we care for our work, and then we are there for each other to talk through things and support each other. I didn’t look for that for a long time, so that’s what I would tell myself. Go find your people.”

*Disclaimer: There are no paid affiliations with Adobe and womeninfilm.co.uk, however Carla Gutierrez is working in collaboration with them.

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and currently studies Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: malinevita.com | IG: @malinevita

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