Editor Lindsay Utz admits filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert never fully counted the hours of footage shot for the Oscar-nominated documentary “American Factory,” but she puts it close to 2000 hours.
Utz pored over the footage that Bognar and Reichert had spent over three years filming and whittled the story down to just under two hours. Her editing process is the same, it always starts with the raw footage. “You really have to look at the material to see the potential,” she explains. “When you’re in the trenches and you have the footage, you don’t exactly know where you’re going to end up.” And she watched it all.
“American Factory” follows the story of the General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio that shut down in 2008. It picks up in 2014 when the Chinese company Fuyao Glass opened its new U.S. branch, creating jobs for the local market, but also bringing in Chinese workers.
The documentary explores the divide between American and Chinese workers in the plant as they come together to manufacture their goods despite the tremendous culture clash. The exploration of the culture clash was the perfect tool for Utz to get into the more serious issues the documentary addresses while balancing it with humor.
“If you watch that opening scene, when the guy is giving his presentation and talking about America, you’ll see he has multiple t-shirt changes,” Utz explains the presentation was something given on a regular basis that she chose to cut it as a “greatest hits mix.”
A significant part of the documentary features the Chinese workers and the CEO speaking in Mandarin. For Utz, it was all about looking at body language, “We didn’t always have a Chinese speaker by my side,” Utz says. “I’d watch the footage and look at the body language during what looked like a micromanaging moment,” Utz reveals. She’d send footage for translation based on gut instinct. “When we started getting those back, the story became richer than any of us could have ever imagined.”
Like most editors, Utz had not been on the field, and that served as an advantage. Being away was important for Utz to inform the editing process. “I’m the audience. I don’t have information outside of the frame and neither does the viewer. The footage needs to reveal itself.” Utz notes that she would often write down her reactions so she could remember how she felt the first time she saw something reveal itself in the raw footage. Based on that, she let the story emerge. “I don’t select material, I eliminate,” Utz says. “It’s a long process of eliminating.”
Once Utz had eliminated the footage, Bognar and Reichert and Utz spent time in a house in Florida sitting down going through the story with cards on the wall, labeling the scenes and seeing the story of globalization emerge.
Utz who prefers the vérité style of filmmaking, says “American Factory” unfolded in the footage. Utz turned it into one of the best documentaries of the year and provided one of the finest commentaries on culture clash and globalization. Utz says, “you can’t force the material to be something it’s not.”