The Ragged Edge: An Interview with Matt Sienkiewicz

The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story is a documentary about Erik Buell and the struggles of his company, Erik Buell Racing, which is the only American sport bike company. The documentary is directed by Joseph Sousa and Matt Sienkiewicz.

I had the privilege of seeing this film in a rough cut and later in the final piece. Matt Sienkiewicz took some time to answer a few of my questions about the film.

Documentary Site: Racing is such an exciting sport. How did you and your colleague find this great story?

Matt Sienkiewicz, The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story: We stumbled into the story a little bit. I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and my co-producer Joe Sousa was working for The History Channel on this short-lived show called Sliced. It was a strange concept. They’d use a diamond-bladed saw and cut through all sorts of objects, revealing, I suppose, something about their history?

In any case, one of the objects they cut open was a Buell motorcycle, and Joe got talking to Erik and Geoff May, the motorcycle racer. Joe was immediately grabbed by the story and asked if I’d take the 80-minute drive from Madison to East Troy to meet with Erik. I had a similar reaction. Erik was one of the most compelling people I’d ever met. He has a unique voice, a signature style.

And then I got to see the impact that the opening and closing of Buell had on East Troy. I talked to employees who spoke about working at Buell with such reverence and gratitude. You could feel their heartbreak when they told you what it was like the day they got shut down. I wanted to see them get back to work and to document it.

DS: What was your process for getting the footage from the Speed network? Was any of the racing footage your own? If so, what went into getting it? (The on-bike camera shots are particularly exciting.)

Matt Sienkiewicz: Speed said we could use it, charged a small fee. We did get some racing footage on our own, mostly just point, shoot, and whip pan stuff. It actually came out pretty well given our limited lenses and smallish cameras. The GoPro footage is really what makes those scenes work, though.

Documentary is a producer’s medium. The key was getting the race crew to trust us enough to pop that camera on the bike during a real race. We can thank Boyd Bruner, who appears throughout the film, for that footage. He attached the camera and turned it on. The rest takes care of itself.

DS: Similar stories of companies and their connections to small towns occur throughout Wisconsin. Companies have strong ties to the local communities and make efforts to support them. Did you see Erik Buell’s story as part of this narrative? Or, were you looking at other contexts? If so, in which ones did you see his story fitting and why?

Matt Sienkiewicz: There’s a very local story and much broader that coexists in the film.

At the local level, it’s about the ways in which capitalism, for all its flaws, can get it right. Buell didn’t help the local community by making donations or contributing in some external way. It did so by providing competitive wages, good work conditions, satisfying labor, and a sense of purpose. It was proof that a business doesn’t have to be heartless and that American can workers can produce some pretty awesome stuff when given the opportunity.

It’s a labor movie, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It argues that labor in a for-profit business does not need to be alienating and that a business can, under the right circumstances, enhance the life of a community.

Of course, the more global side of the story cuts against the happy local one. As practiced currently, our version of capitalism doesn’t have a lot of room for a responsible company that can very likely make a profit, but requires patience and long-term commitment. I’m confident that EBR (Erik’s new company) has the potential to become a profitable, stable enterprise.

But the investment world looks for faster turnover and greater margins. The idea of making a solid percentage on a long-term investment does not attract the kind of money EBR needs. So, the film is about how business can be a force for good, but today’s vision of capitalism won’t necessarily let it.

DS: Buell experiences a frustrating series of forward steps and setbacks throughout the film. How did those affect the overall editing of the film?

Matt Sienkiewicz: It was a roller coaster. When you start a documentary like this, you don’t know until the very end whether or not you have a story. It was heart-wrenching to see these employees lose their jobs, get them back, lose them again, get them back again, and now, at least for the time being, be in limbo. We had at least five different cuts of the film with different endings, some happier than others.

DS: Your previous production, Live from Bethlehem, involved very different filming circumstances. How was filming in small-town Midwest different? Any unique things you noticed filming there that you have not seen elsewhere?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Well, the language is quite a bit easier. The experiences of shooting the films weren’t as different as you might think, though. I’m a Jewish humanities professor from Boston. Neither a Palestinian newsroom nor and Wisconsin motorcycle factory is exactly my home turf. So both films involved both really trying to understand another culture and, crucially, proving to the locals that I was there to learn about them and represent them as fairly as possible. The Midwestern stereotype of niceness certainly rings true and stands in significant distinction to the Middle East, where people tend to call things like they see them a bit more. But once you get to know someone and they start to be comfortable with the camera, it just becomes a matter of having a conversation, which is a pretty cross-cultural past time.

DS: A rough cut of this film included a voiceover narration, yet it was eliminated in your final cut. Why did you make the decision to remove it?

Matt Sienkiewicz: We’ve done that on the last two films. Generally, voiceover is a crutch, used to hide the weakness in the visual aspects of the storytelling. Our goal is to allow people, as much as possible, to tell their own stories. It’s a bit of a lie of course Joe, Ethan Schwelling (our editor), and I are shaping the story at every turn, voiceover or no voiceover. But when we limit ourselves to what other people say and do, we find things feel more honest.

DS: Any follow-up on the film since its epilogue?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Actually, yes. Looks like EBR may well be back up and running soon enough. We’re about to take off that depressing epilogue. Here’s hoping.