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Editor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary on what makes her a supreme icon

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Just what makes Ruth Bader Ginsburg so notorious?

From her workouts to her dissents and sparkly collars, the Supreme Court justice has earned the moniker that lawyer Shana Knizhnik gave her back in 2013, with the Notorious RBG Tumblr. A new documentary about the 84-year-old Ginsburg debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Julie Cohen, creator of Court TV’s Supreme Court Watch, and Betsy West, a filmmaker and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, directed the film. Digital Trends spoke with RBG’s editor, Carla Gutierrez, about what she thinks viewers will learn about — and from — Ginsburg.

Sundance 2018

Perhaps many of Ginsburg’s fans who are too young to remember her 1993 confirmation hearing would describe her as a pugnacious little shorty with a 1,000 IQ, à la a certain Smart Guy. What they may not know is that Ginsburg has been fighting against discriminatory laws during her career. In 1972, she first argued before the Supreme Court in the Frontiero v. Richardson case. A female lieutenant in the United States Air Force requested spousal dependency for her husband and was denied, indicating there were different qualification criteria for her than for her male colleagues. The Court ruled in favor of Ginsburg’s argument that this was discriminatory, eight to one. “An amazing discovery for me was really learning what the work that was done during the women’s movement but on a legal level to fight for women’s rights and gender equality,” Gutierrez said.

While framed around four cases that highlight Ginsburg’s career, the documentary also gives insight into her background and family life. “We’re all affected by our intimate experiences,” Gutierrez said. “She grew up as a woman in the 1940’s, being one of 11 women of a class of 500 students in Harvard Law School. All those personal experiences have really shaped who she is.”

Finding her voice

Gutierrez says the directors, producers, researchers, and herself were able to find a trove of footage and images that help tell Ginsburg’s story, including material her upbringing in Brooklyn, New York in the 1930’s, and from Cornell and Harvard Universities in the 1950’s. On top of the images are excerpts from interviews with Ginsburg herself, her children, lawyers she’s worked with, childhood friends, and classmates. “There are men in the film but to me it feels a little bit like a film about an amazing woman and about women’s rights told through women’s voices and made by women,” Gutierrez said.

“We use her voice a lot,” Gutierrez added. She went through the C-SPAN footage of Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, which lasted four days. “It gets very specific, and senators love to talk a lot,” she said. “It was really invaluable for us to take the time to watch everything so that you find the gems. She just had this energy. The way that she defended and explained her thinking and her way of looking at law as really special.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ginsburg’s voice can give context to other images from the Women’s Movement era, Gutierrez believes.

“You see the images over and over again, and they’re chanting for equality, and it’s an equality that a lot of us — it’s some sense of equality that we have taken for granted,” she said. “Really discovering the work that her and people like her have done in the background, behind those protests, behind the images that you see, it just adds to the appreciation and it also gives you strength for understanding what needs to be done from here on. And it’s just the right moment for it.”

Because some of the footage can be packed with legalese, directors West and Cohen tried to find ways the non-lawyers in the audience could still follow the arguments. In addition to using graphics of Ginsburg’s words, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, also weighs in. “It was a very personal interview, but she has a radio voice that doesn’t go away,” Gutierrez said of Totenberg. “She’s so knowledgeable, and she’s so used to explaining some of that legal stuff in the media to people that are not lawyers, so she was great at giving some context to specific cases we were covering.”

In her shoes

“One of the segment I enjoyed editing the most was when she first went to the Supreme Court to argue her first case as a lawyer,” Gutierrez said. “Hopefully people will feel like they’re going with her and feel her nerves.” To portray the intimidation of presenting a case before an all-male Court, Gutierrez used black-and-white images of the men’s portraits. This was before Sandra Day O’Connor took her seat in 1981 as the first female justice.

Framed around four cases that highlight Ginsburg’s career, the documentary also gives insight into her background.

In addition to the historical cases, RBG shows personal photos and old 8mm film of Ginsburg. “There’s a part of the film where she talks about her mom and the two lessons she learned from her mom and one of them was never waste your time with emotions that are going to be wasteful, like jealousy and anger. Just keep putting your head down and do the work. That was really inspiring,” said Gutierrez.

Part of being an editor is knowing not only what to keep in but what to cut, such as a portion of Ginsburg’s nomination speech in the Rose Garden when she mentions her mother, who died when the justice was a teenager.

“It was very emotional, and we had that moment for a long time in the film, but just the way the whole segment was being built, it just did not belong there,” said Gutierrez. “Letting go, even though it was such a beautiful moment, it made that whole chunk of the film a lot stronger.”

After coming to the U.S. from Peru as a teenager, Gutierrez learned to speak English and eventually enrolled in Stanford University’s documentary program.

“I identify myself as an immigrant,” she said. “I identify myself really strongly with the U.S. Latino community here.”


Gutierrez has been working on films since 2005 and has four films she’s worked on come to the Sundance Film Festival; one has been nominated for an Academy Award. She said what draws her to documentaries is “the possibility of intimacy, because I find that the very personal, intimate stories can really build empathy and compassion… I feel like there’s a power in documentary storytelling that can really make people open to other people’s experiences.”

She can’t wait until her oldest child sees RBG. (Her youngest isn’t yet old enough to appreciate the documentary, she said.) While her two children have grown up with a working mother and a father who splits the work of raising them and running a household, Gutierrez also wants them to understand the history Ginsburg helped shape.

While many have an image of Ginsburg as a progressive voice in the Supreme Court, Gutierrez said the documentary shows how much the justice relies upon precedent.

“She’s not an activist judge,” Gutierrez said. “She’s so strategic and so careful with what she puts on paper. She has an amazing legal mind. I learned by listening to other people explain it how she’s setting up precedence for the future in her dissents; so, she’s thinking long-term.”

When we asked Gutierrez what snack viewers should have on hand when watching RBG, she suggested an everything bagel — a nod to the Brooklyn roots of both Ginsburg and Notorious B.I.G. We also wanted to know what she thinks draws so many generations of women to see the Notorious RBG as a role model.

“You have this older woman that is so sharp and so strong, and you have the image of an older Jewish grandmother that is putting this strength on paper, that is being a really strong voice for defending what she believes in,” she said. “Some combination that makes her really special.”

This article is part of a series of reports from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Digital Trends was a guest of Adobe Premiere Pro during the event.

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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