AMERICAN FACTORY: CAUGHT BY A STORY
By Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, and Sadie Tillery
A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
“Steve and Julia have offered the festival what I’ve come to believe is one of the greatest gifts a filmmaker can extend: They show up. Every year, whether they have films screening or not, they are here to engage with films and support artists.”
—Sadie Tillery, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Artistic Director
CDS editor’s note: In The Last Truck, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the 2008 closing of a General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. Six years later, when a Chinese billionaire bought and reopened the facility as an auto-glass factory, they returned to observe what happens when workers from profoundly different cultures collide. The resulting film, American Factory, is the first release from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company in partnership with Netflix, and started streaming on the platform last month; view trailer. The Last Truck and American Factory were among the nine Bognar and Reichert works screened at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in April 2019, which honored the filmmakers with its annual Tribute. In the following excerpt from an interview published in the festival program, Full Frame artistic director Sadie Tillery talks to Bognar and Reichert about how they started out, their collaboration, and how their roots in the Midwest shape their work.
The 23rd annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival is April 2–5, 2020, in Durham, North Carolina; the festival is a program of the Center for Documentary Studies.
How did you come to filmmaking?
Well, we have totally different stories there. I came out of the movements of the 1960s—the Vietnam War, civil rights, gay liberation, and particularly the women’s movement. From the time I was a young teenager I was drawn to photography. I was also drawn to radio, and combining the two was filmmaking. For me, getting involved in filmmaking was all about how to support movements for social change, the content. Over time, I became much more interested in the aesthetics of cinema.
I came of age in the late ’70s, and punk rock music was a huge influence on my life. But I couldn’t play an instrument and had no musical aptitude. My friends and I had a Super 8 movie camera. Instead of forming a band, we started making movies together. They were terrible little movies, but they birthed in me a love of cinema. I had seen Star Wars when I was fourteen, and that was hugely formative. I didn’t think I wanted to do documentary. I was into writing and fiction filmmaking and weird, experimental films for a number of years into the early ’80s. Then I discovered this book of photographs by Robert Frank called The Americans, which came out in 1958 and is a landmark work of nonfiction photography. That book opened my heart and my eyes to the idea that real people are more interesting than anything I could write, that real stories should be told, and that real faces should be shown. That changed my life.
JR: It’s funny because, being interested in photography, I also discovered The Americans. They were revelatory for me, those images. I discovered it a whole generation before Steve, but our love of that book was one of the things, when we first got to know each other, that we shared.
Yet you both turned to filmmaking rather than still photography. What feels particularly powerful about moving images?
SB: Cinema is photography, but it’s also sound. The immersion into landscapes of sound, the intimacy of the human voice, and the storytelling that comes with time-based media is so rich. I used to say to students, cinema is all the art forms combined. It’s painting, it’s photography, it’s theater, it’s dance, it’s design, it’s everything. I’m about the process. There’s literally something about filming and editing and playing with moments of time that I am just intoxicated by even now—I’m going to turn fifty-six very soon, and it’s been forty years, this year, since I started making movies.
While many of our films are social-issue films, we’re also always mindful of the craft, the cinema of it all. We pour a lot of heart and energy and thought into making our films cinematic experiences. I’m proud of that. With American Factory, we worked very hard, all of us who were filming. Even though it was a very intense, loud, and industrial environment, we wanted the film to be visually rich and evocative and to make people look beautiful.
JR: For me, from early on, with Growing Up Female and later Union Maids, it was sitting in rooms with people watching the film and seeing them identify—seeing them laugh, seeing them tear up, seeing them clap—and then talking afterwards and realizing how much impact a film could have. I think that’s what hooked me, the audience response, and how especially Growing Up Female helped create change in the world. It brought women together and created a space for new thoughts.
SB: Julia traveled all over the country in the early 1970s with 16mm film prints of Growing Up Female, and showed it again, and again, and again, in small towns, in cities, in consciousness-raising groups.
JR: It was a forge for me, and I’ve carried that through to today, the impact a film can have on the audience.
Your voices, and your connections with people, are such a significant part of your films. How do you approach talking to people? How do you achieve that intimacy?
JR: With all of the films I’ve made, including all the ones that Steve and I have made together, I feel very connected to the story. Every film I’ve made answers questions that came out of my own life. That’s probably why—it’s personal. It’s not for the record. It’s not for history. It’s not for posterity. It’s for me.
SB: The films are very personal to both of us. When you’re trying to build trust with the people you’ve asked to participate in your movie, that personal reason matters. People can tell. We spend a lot of time making these films, and people, I feel, come to realize that we’re in it for the long haul. It’s presumptuous what we do—we go into the lives of people we don’t know and say, “Trust us to tell your story.” That’s really presumptuous, maybe even absurd. The reality is, we’ll start to show up somewhere, and then we keep showing up, and showing up, and showing up.
When we were making The Last Truck, we were outside the GM plant day after day with our cameras, trying to get thirty-second interviews with people as they were leaving the factory. Some people drove by us dozens of times. That was six months of filming: We started in June and ended in December. As the weather got colder, we were still outside the factory, holding a sign, waving at people, asking, “Hey, do you have a second to talk?” At some point, people who had driven by us for months finally relented, thinking, I guess, It’s cold, it’s snowing, and you’re still out here, like numbskulls, so I guess I’ll talk to you. People basically said that to us. I think that’s been key to our process, and I think that’s a reason that Julia and I are great collaborators—we both know the commitment it takes. When we sign on to a film, we don’t let go.
Can you talk about your collaborative process?
SB: Well, there’s our collaboration with each other, and there’s our collaboration with certain key comrades. We’ve been profoundly lucky to collaborate deeply with brilliant friends.
JR: Between Steve and me, we complement each other. Steve has the magic eye: He always finds the incredible shot, the most eloquent shot, the way the light hits. So we wait and go back when the light is hitting just like that. And he makes people look, if not necessarily gorgeous, respected. He shows them in a way that they can be proud of. Steve’s got that eye, and he just never, ever, ceases to follow it.
SB: I rely on Julia’s instincts about story and people—who we should be talking to, what we should be asking, what’s the heart of it. I think Julia has an ability to cut through to the essence of things, not only when we’re filming but also in the editing room. I’ve come to rely on that in a huge way.
JR: Because of my background in radio, and the films Union Maids, Growing Up Female, and Seeing Red, I had done so much interviewing. I’m comfortable finding my way into somebody’s story and then standing back and helping them be their best self. It does take experience. And true curiosity.
SB: We both have a lot of curiosity about people. If we get caught by a story, it’s what we live and breathe for several years.
You worked with a larger team to make American Factory—a film that follows many different people, travels between countries, and navigates different cultures. Can you talk about the collaboration involved in that film?
SB: On American Factory, we had a great, amazing team—incredibly dedicated, smart, hardworking people. A lot of them were former students of ours from Wright State University who were camera people, like Aubrey Keith and Erick Stoll, or who were in the editing room, or in post-production, like Liz Yong Lowe and David Holm. We were so lucky to work with the ever-wise Diane Weyermann and Elise Pearlstein at Participant Media. And there were two people with whom we had a super-intense, super-intimate collaboration, and that was our brilliant editor, Lindsay Utz, and our producer, cinematographer, and nephew, Jeff Reichert. Normally, in the past, I’ve been the hands-on editor. We always have great consulting editors, but in the trenches, Julia and I’ve made the films mostly ourselves. On this film, Lindsay, Jeff, Julia, and I were the nucleus of collaboration. It was exhilarating. Lindsay and Jeff bring different perspectives and ingenious ideas, and I think the film is so much better for it.
Lindsay would challenge us. There would be a certain character that we’d want to include, or a certain scene, and she would challenge us to articulate why. And often she would persuade us to ask ourselves, “Does it fuel the larger story? Or do we like it because we love that person?” Having the kind of editor who will stand up to you—that was great. The other reason why American Factory succeeded is because of the two Chinese co-producers on the film, Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li. Either Yiqian or Mijie were in Ohio every few weeks for over a year. We were also in China with them. They were crucial to us being able to connect with and share stories of the Chinese side of American Factory, both from the Chairman’s perspective and the workers’ perspectives. They built the relationships with the Chinese people in the film.
JR: Most of the Chinese workers spoke no English. They boarded the plane in South China and got off the plane in Dayton, Ohio. It was a completely new world for them, but they brought their culture with them. There was no way we would’ve gotten in there. But as soon as there were Chinese people speaking to them in their language, some of them from a nearby province, the walls immediately started falling down. For me, the collaboration with Yiqian and Mijie went beyond them being in the factory and speaking the language; they helped us to understand the culture. They taught us so much.
As you describe these relationships, it occurs to me that your other collaborators are the people in the film themselves.
SB: Absolutely. Though it’s not a full collaboration. I’ve thought about this a lot. When I was a younger filmmaker, I felt so grateful to anyone who would talk to me and was willing to be on camera. I felt like they were doing me a huge favor. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to feel that if someone agrees to be in a film, there’s a part of that person that wants to share their story, to put something out there, on the record. True collaboration would mean that they’re sitting in the edit room with us the whole time and making every edit decision with us. It’s not that. But there’s a collaborative aspect to being in a documentary, to shaping a portrait of a person and sharing a story. That’s always ethically complicated but a wonderful part of the process. We’re always working to be mindful of how we’re representing people. As older, white, straight, cis, middle-class Midwesterners, we have to be aware of the inherent biases that come with our particular demographics. The process of hanging out with someone and trying to figure out who they are, and working with them to do that, is very rich.
You’re based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, rather than New York or Los Angeles. How has being a filmmaker in the Midwest informed your work?
JR: We don’t have that big filmmaking community, but on the other hand, we have our neighbors and a window on all these stories that are generally overlooked and have been for decades, in newspapers, on TV, in documentaries even. We get to tell the stories of people whose stories don’t get told, and we don’t have to leave home.
SB: We hear the stories before the world hears about them. Everyone was so shocked about the outcome of the 2016 election and what happened in the Midwest, but we saw it coming. Driving around and talking to people, we could see where the energy was heading months before the election.
JR: Since November 2016 there’s been a lot more stories coming out of the Midwest—people have been like, What the hell’s going on out there? I think that’s one reason why Participant Media wanted to get behind American Factory; it came out of the Midwest and was by Midwesterners. They realized that people weren’t hearing from us, that we were very ignored. And we were. Working-class people, especially, have felt disrespected and without a voice. Some thought they had found that in the person who’s now our president. Where we are located has made it possible for us to make films like A Lion in the House, The Last Truck, and certainly American Factory. You couldn’t make that kind of film flying into and out of Dayton or Cincinnati. Also life is affordable here. Groceries, rent, travel. We keep our nut low. If you want to be an independent filmmaker and control your own future, you can’t live an expensive lifestyle. You’re better off living in a place where there are interesting stories.
“Dispatches from the CDS” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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