Yellow Springs filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar brought home one of the highest honors from the Sundance Film Festival last week. The couple received the “Directing Award: U.S. Documentary” for “American Factory,” their feature-length documentary, at Sundance, the most prestigious American film festival.
“It’s been head-spinning,” Bognar said on Monday in a phone interview. “There are so many great films at Sundance, I didn’t expect this. It’s humbling to get this honor.”
Reichert added, “It feels a little bit like a dream,” she said about the 10 days she and Bognar spent in Park City, Utah, at the festival. “It’s such another world at Sundance, the hubbub, the crowd, the mountains, the deals, the parties.”
“American Factory” tells the story of cultural and political clashes after a Chinese billionaire in 2014 bought a shuttered former General Motors factory near Dayton, bringing in Chinese workers and supervisors to work alongside former GM employees. During the following three years, the documentarians filmed as workers struggled to understand each other and adjust expectations as to how to work together.
“It was an epic adventure,” Bognar said of the drama and complexities the film captured.
“American Factory” has garnered glowing reviews. According to New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, the film is one of “the two most powerful documentaries at the festival.”
“It can be startling what happens when documentarians are granted the kind of extraordinary access that Bognar and Reichert managed to get,” Dargis wrote a few days ago.
And according to the website firstshowing.net:
“American Factory,” the latest doc by filmmaking team Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, is a documentary masterpiece — plain and simple. This is an exhilarating, impressive-in-every-way film that rivals the work of Frederick Wiseman, utilizing a similar style with impressive amounts of fly-on-the-wall footage.”
According to Reichert this week, “American Factory” was a hard film to make.
“I’ve been making films for almost 50 years, and for all the roads I’ve walked down in my life, I needed them all to make this film. It challenged me as a filmmaker, as a citizen of Ohio and as an American,” she said.
What was especially challenging to Reichert is that most of her films have taken a stand, such as the Oscar-nominated short “The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant,” which advocated for the plight of Dayton blue-collar workers who were losing their jobs. But in “American Factory,” the filmmakers sought to present with equal weight the sometimes conflicting perspectives of American workers, Chinese workers and Chinese managers, who were trying to work together in a difficult situation. The film tries to make clear that no one was right or wrong, Reichert said.
Rather, the Chinese and Americans simply approached work from very different cultural frames.
“This film sits in the shoes of those from different sides,” she said. “It leaves you confounded. It leaves you thinking.”
In her acceptance speech at Sundance, Reichert said she hopes the film helps to “turn down the heat between the world’s two great superpowers.” And especially, she said, she hopes the film gives voice to working people, who currently have no voice in the global economic situation.
“If working people don’t have a voice on what’s happening on a global scale, it’s bad for all of us, it’s not sustainable,” Reichert said. “We hope our film can be part of that conversation.”
As well as winning the directing award, the couple came away from Sundance with the likelihood of having sold the film to Netflix. Deadline Hollywood reported a few days ago that Netflix “was on the verge” of purchasing the film for a sum of “under
$3 million” but neither Netflix or Participation Media, the filmmakers’ funding partner, have made an official statement. According to Bognar, the couple cannot comment on the possible sale at this point.
Making the film
The spark for “American Factory” came in 2015 when Bognar and Reichert were contacted by leaders of the Dayton Development Coalition with an idea for a new film.
The former GM factory building in Moraine, then gutted and shuttered, had been purchased by a Chinese billionaire, with plans to reopen as a glass factory. The DDC leaders thought this was a historic event, and perhaps a worthy topic for a new film.
Because Reichert and Bognar had previously made “The Last Truck: the Closing of a GM Plant” about the shutting down of the very same plant, the DDC leaders thought of them first.
The filmmakers were interested, but with a significant condition.
“We said we’d only do it if we could be truly independent, have full editorial control,” Bognar said. “This was not a promotional film. We weren’t taking any money from the company. And we needed a lot of access.”
Surprisingly, the billionaire who bought the factory, Cho Tak Wong, was intrigued, and agreed to the conditions.
“He’s a real maverick,” Bognar said.
So the couple began filming. At first, it was just the two of them with their cameras, although soon they brought in two graduates from Wright State’s film department, Aubrey Keith and Erick Stoll. Reichert’s nephew, Jeff Reichert, who is also a filmmaker, later joined the group.
They filmed the work to get the building up and running again, then the activity when workers were hired. They filmed assembly line workers and supervisors, in meetings, break rooms and on the plant floor.
“The people of the company welcomed us into their lives,” Bognar said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have had a film.”
The film documents the initial difficulties encountered by all involved, Bognar said. The difficulties were linked not just to language but cultural expectations regarding work, leading to a work environment that was more challenging than anyone expected, he said. The challenge was compounded by the reality that the Chinese workers had traveled far from their families and homes to live in Ohio, and loneliness was a real issue.
“The heart of the drama is when and how it will become win-win for everyone,” Bognar said.
About a year into the film, the filmmakers needed a funding partner so they could keep paying the young people working for them, even though they weren’t paying themselves at the time. Bognar and Reichert were very pleased to find that partner in Participant Media, which has also funded the recent documentary “RBG” and the dramatic film “Roma.”
The filmmakers were also helped by two Chinese filmmakers, Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang, who helped with both filming and language challenges, along with acting as the filmmakers’ “eyes and ears,” according to Bognar.
Over a three-year period the group ended up with more than 1,200 hours of film. It was an extraordinary amount of footage, Bognar said; previously, the most footage Bognar and Reichert had worked with was 525 hours, and they had vowed not to do that again. But here they were, ending up with more than twice that amount.
The group finished filming at the end of 2017, and an editor came on board. All worked together in early 2018 to outline the story they saw from watching the footage, then the editor, Lindsay Utz of Chicago, got to work.
Bognar has only accolades for her work.
“We had an amazing editor,” he said. “She is both brilliant and unstoppable.”
In the summer of 2018, things really heated up. It wasn’t yet clear that the film would be finished in time for Sundance, but the group wanted to try. So Utz and her family moved to town for the summer, as did Jeff Reichert. Villagers opened their homes, with Utz living in the home of Len Kramer and Toni Dosik, and Reichert with Richard and Maureen Lapedes.
“It was a classic example of how Yellow Springs supports the arts,” Bognar said.
Adding to the challenge, Julia Reichert was dealing with cancer.
“That made it all the more meaningful that Jeff and Lindsay could be here,” Bognar said.
In September, the group realized they could possibly finish the film in time to submit a rough cut to Sundance for an October deadline, so they went full force; in November they found the film was accepted to Sundance, so they had until mid-January to finish it.
“It was insane,” Bognar said, of the work necessary to finish the film. “It was overdrive time. It became a mad race.”
But they did it. The film was due Jan. 16, and Sundance began on Jan. 23. So the filmmakers had a few days off, just a few, until a different sort of pressure began.
The whirl of Sundance
Reichert wrote her acceptance speech in the car on the way to the Sundance award ceremony, on the off chance that she’d need a speech.
“There was no time” to write it before, she said this week, because of the whirlwind nature of the festival.
For one thing, “American Factory” had six showings, beginning the first day of the festival, and Reichert sat through every one. An irony of Sundance, she said, is that you show up to the festival having worked so hard, but you’re not quite sure if your film works or not. At least, that’s how she felt, having pushed so much right up to the deadline.
“I sat through it six times, because I wanted to really feel how the audience reacted,” she said.
With the initial showing, Reichert relaxed. In the first moments of “American Factory” the workers’ cultural differences seem humorous, and sure enough, the audiences at Sundance began laughing. But the film later turns dark, more challenging, and Reichert could feel the audience shift to that dynamic as well.
“People seemed to really be with the film,” she said.
Aside from watching the film, Reichert and Bognar, along with Participant Media representatives, were involved in a bidding war among companies that wanted to purchase the film. The process involved many meetings and late night phone calls as first, six or seven companies showed interest in “American Factory” and then three of those companies engaged in a longer competition. The process was finally settled near the end of the festival.
“It was stressful and exciting,” Reichert said of the process, which resulted in the reported deal with Netflix.
So the filmmakers were exhausted when they attended the awards ceremony.
“We were so tired and bleary-eyed,” Reichert said.
There were 600 to 800 in the audience, including directors, actors and producers, among others. But as the ceremony went on and “American Factory” didn’t win anything, Reichert thought she wouldn’t have to deliver that speech after all.
But the biggest awards get saved for the last, and the directing award is one of the biggest. When Bognar’s and Reichert’s names were called, the two walked to the podium.
“It was very scary,” Reichert said. “I was both kind of brain dead and ‘deer in the headlights.’”
But Reichert and Bognar rallied to deliver their speeches. While Bognar thanked those who helped make the film, Reichert spoke of the film’s content, and especially her wish that the film helps give voice to average people, to workers.
It’s been a big year for Reichert. In December she was honored by the International Documentary Association, or IDA, with that group’s career achievement award, recognizing her almost 50 years in filmmaking. During that time, three of the films she made with either Bognar or previous film partner Jim Klein have been nominated for Academy Awards, one received an Emmy, and one was selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Now that Sundance is over, Reichert and Bognar are taking a rest. Reichert flew from Utah to Key West, where she and Bognar stay a few weeks each winter, and he joins her there this week. Then a round of film festivals begins for “American Factory,” and of course, more work. The couple has begun work on “The 9 to 5 Project,” a documentary about a 1970s movement in Boston among female workers who organized for workplace change.
While Reichert and Bognar don’t have immediate plans to show “American Factory” in the area, they hope to do so before long. Reichert hopes to have a big showing in Dayton that the factory workers who took part in the film could attend.
“That would be my dream,” she said.
While Reichert and Bognar were honored for their individual efforts directing the film, they emphasize that the film was a group project.
“We wouldn’t have made it without our team,” Bognar said. “It was a great collaborative effort.”