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.”
Yellow Springs students brought home a variety of extra-curricular awards in the past week, in addition to the district’s athletic accomplishments.
Regional competitions in writing, debate and world affairs saw Bulldogs succeeding and placing well against larger schools and sometimes more experienced participants.
Power of the Pen
The McKinney Middle School eighth-grade Power of the Pen team has traditionally done well in regional and state competition.
The team most recently placed second, out of 17 teams, at the Western District tournament in Springfield on Saturday, Feb. 2.
Students also did well individually, with Olive Cooper earning the first-place writing award, besting all other eighth-graders competing in the tournament.
In addition, Sylvia Korson placed fourth and Dani Bieri came in 10th overall.
Qualifying participants will go on to compete in the Western regional tournament Saturday, March 9, at Wittenberg University, with winners there qualifying for the state competition in Wooster in May.
The team’s coaches are middle school language arts teacher Jaime Adoff and retired language arts teacher Aurelia Blake.
Speech and Debate
In the state-qualifying regional speech and debate tournament at Centerville High School on Saturday, Feb. 2, Yellow Springs sophomore Galen Sieck earned a spot in the Ohio-wide competition March 1–2 in Canton.
Sieck placed fifth out of 12 competitors in the Lincoln-Douglas debate category at the Greater Miami Valley District Tournament.
Named for the historical matchups of 19th-century presidential candidates Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas, the event pits participants one-on-one against a rival on a value-focused topic.
Last year, the local team’s first, Sieck qualified for the state novice competition.
The high school team is coached by Brian Housh.
Junior Council on World Affairs
In its second year at the high school under the guidance of history and government teacher Kevin Lydy, the Junior Council on World Affairs club competed Monday, Feb. 4, in the annual QuizBowl hosted by the Dayton Council on World Affairs at the University of Dayton.
Thirty-nine four-person teams from eight school districts participated in the annual event.
Yellow Springs fronted five teams of its own, placing second, seventh, ninth, 11th and 14th.
The second-place team — seniors David Walker, Dylan Rainey, William Gregor and Connor McAnerney — finished a slim three points shy of the first-place winners, from the Dayton STEM School, which will represent the Dayton region in the national competition in Washington, D.C, this spring.
Coach Lydy said that while teams are competing for a possible 100 points, most winning teams earn in the high 60s or low 70s. The winning team on Monday had 66 points.
“The questions are really difficult,” he said.
By Aurelia Blake and Megan Bachman
Right now in this peace-loving village, battles are waging in the form of a 1,000-year-old military game. No, not the animated, simulated gory gun battles of modern video games, but a noisy game of classical chess.
Many local youth took to the game eight years ago, when a 25-year-old Omar Durrani — known as Mister Omar — first started teaching chess around town in school and at after-school programs.
The unique teacher who imparted life lessons along with chess maneuvers is still at it, now appearing by FaceTime to coach Yellow Springs chess players at a distance from his current home of Boca Raton, Fla.
Mister Omar’s Chess Academy is now seeking new players, grades 3–12, including those interested in competing as a member of the “Yellow Springs Kings” team at this year’s Queen City Classic tournament in Cincinnati in March.
A free training session for those interested in playing will be held Saturday, Feb. 23, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Emporuim.
One team member, Yellow Springs High School senior Sulayman Chappelle, speaks fondly of his chess mentor, who he first met at a Mills Lawn Elementary after-school chess program. In a recent interview, Chappelle reflected on how Mister Omar helped local students of diverse backgrounds bond over the game of chess. He also taught him that in the game of chess, “there is no place for ego.”
“Mister Omar taught me that there is no reason to have pride,” Chappelle said. “You have to be willing to lose a thousand games to win one.”
The respect is mutual.
“Sulayman has been a force for keeping chess and the momentum going in Yellow Springs,” Durrani said in a recent phone interview. “He even has chess sleepovers, because he loves the game.”
If fact, it was Chappelle who coaxed his coach back ahead of last year’s Queen City Classic. Arriving just three months before the tournament, Durrani led the Yellow Springs team to a first-place finish in the competition among nonrated teams. The Queen City Classic is an annual event in Cincinnati that draws 700 chess players from across the country.
It was easy for Durrani to jump back into the chess community he created here and lead his team to victory.
“It was the spirit of the seeds I planted years ago,” Durrani said of the unlikely win.
That 2018 “ad hoc” team featured Kaden Boutis, Christian Elam, Jakob Lara-Woodburn, Miles Sturm, Sumayah Chappelle, brothers Sulayman and Ibrahim Chappelle, Sam Lewis and Henri Wirrig.
Most of the 2018 team has graduated, but the current high schoolers are intent on returning to the tournament with their coach, Mister Omar.
Mister Omar brings chess to YS
In 2010, Durrani, a Wright State undergraduate student, arrived in Yellow Springs and began teaching chess in the Mills Lawn After-School Enrichment Program. After a successful year engaging numerous students, he held his first summer chess camp at the Emporium.
From 2010–2014, Kurt and Ruth Miyazaki invited Durrani to host an enclave of school-agers in the Emporium for summer and winter chess camps, and after-school instruction.
In part to model the virtues of respect, courtesy and humility, Durrani asked his students to address him not by his first name, but by the more formal title, Mister Omar. From that moniker came Mister Omar’s Chess Academy, or MOCA.
Durrani’s own journey with chess began in Columbus at age 13, when he placed third in a state chess tournament. The performance earned him an automatic entrance at the national tournament later that year, but he wasn’t allowed to go. It was a decisive moment in his life,
“When I was a kid, I never had this opportunity,” he said, referencing his Yellow Springs players. “Chess was snatched away from me.”
Durrani picked up the game at age 7, learning chess before he learned how to speak English fluently. Born in America but raised in India, Durrani taught himself to play using a family set made from antique ivory.
“Chess is part of my heritage,” Durrani said.
During his last few quarters at Wright State University, an opportunity to teach chess as a part of the Mills Lawn After-School Enrichment Program arose.
Those local students then followed their chess teacher into the quietude of the Emporium, where sometimes up to 20 elementary school students sat hunched over roll-up chess boards in hot pursuit of their opponents’ kings.
After a successful first year teaching chess, Durrani started his own chess academy, then held his first summer chess camp at the Emporium for grades K–8. He was then asked by M.J Richlen, then-manager of the Antioch School, to conduct a school-wide chess residency, where he taught the whole school how to play chess in a three-week term.
Many of those youth are now in high school and grateful to have been introduced to the game. When sophomore Sam Foster was 9 years old, he experienced hyperactivity and was at times emotionally explosive in school, he recalls. Durrani coached him for four years, and it had a noticeable impact.
“Chess calmed me down and helped me to focus,” Foster said recently. “I developed critical thinking skills that I’ve used in other strategy games, like Risk.”
Jakob Lara-Woodburn, who now attends Bowling Green University, remembers the laughter-filled chess gatherings and the enduring lessons he learned.
“Chess taught me how to learn and use strategies,” Lara-Woodburn said. “No game was ever the same. It was fun, but Mister Omar made it an education.”
A few years ago, Durrani moved to Florida for graduate school. With an MBA, he now works as an analyst at Office Depot Headquarters and is married with a daughter. But his coaching hasn’t stopped, thanks to Sulayman Chappelle.
Chappelle has two goals before he finishes high school. The first is to play in the 2019 Queen City Classic Tournament in March. The second is to finish his senior project, entitled, “Pass It On,” an eight-week chess residency for Mills Lawn third-graders.
Emulating his mentor, Mister Omar, Chappelle intends to show that love is infectious, even in the battle of chess, he said. Asked how he plans to keep a large group of elementary students quiet, he mused about the game’s ultimate purpose.
“You don’t want a quiet group … that’s so mechanical and boring. If it is not fun, then why?”
Those interested in joining Mister Omar’s Chess Academy can email Duranni at OmarWillSpeak@gmail.com.
*Blake is a retired McKinney Middle School teacher.
Rowen Richard Bradley Newsome, age 7 months, of Xenia, passed away Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, at Greene Memorial Hospital. He was born June 28, 2018, in Centerville, and was the son of Ryan and Alexis Newsome.
Rowen is survived by his parents; his sisters, Aliyah Lorena Newsome and Adilynn Ruth Newsome; brother, Reuben Ryan Newsome; grandfathers, Richard Dean Mickle, Brad Tate Newsome and Barry Miller; grandmothers, Angelia Marie Mickle, Michelle Lynn Newsome and Linda Sue Miller; great-grandmothers, Sandra Kay Mickle, Deborah Sue Knisley and Kay Bowman; great-great grandmother, Zelpha Koogler; great-grandfathers, Michael Leroy Knisley and Fred Bowman; uncles, Richard Mickle, Jacob Mickle, Roland Newsome, Roman Newsome and Cole Edwards; aunts, Amanda Mickle and Kara Edwards. He is also survived by numerous other family members and friends.
A funeral service was held on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, at 11 a.m. at Xenia Nazarene Church. The family is being served by Newcomer Funeral Home Beavercreek. Please visit http://www.newcomerdayton.com to share a memory in the family guest book.
Monday, Feb. 4, was a beautiful sunny day, with temperatures in the 50s. Around 11 a.m., motivated by the unseasonable weather, David See decided to wash his Jeep’s floor mats, so he took them behind his house on Clearcreek Trail in Bath Township to hose them off. He happened to look at the half-acre pond — still mostly iced over — about 50 yards back on his four-acre property.
See noticed a new hole in the ice, but with something black moving in it. At first he thought it might be a duck or goose, but moving to take a closer look, he saw a black dog had broken through the ice.
“Poor little thing was hanging on the edge of the ice, whimpering and shivering,” said See. The dog was trying to climb out of the water, but was unable to, the edges breaking off under its paws.
“I kind of freaked out,” he continued. “I ran up to the house and called 911.”
See found his hip waders, put them on and approached the ice.
“I tried to figure out if there was any way I could get out there, but I couldn’t.”
He tried to calm the dog by talking to it, and it seemed to be clinging to the edge of the ice fairly well.
“I love dogs more than anything.” See said he decided that if the dog went back under water before help arrived, he would go in to save it.
Fortunately, the Miami Township Fire-Rescue squad arrived at his home within about ten minutes, by See’s estimate. The engine crew of Firefighters/EMTs Ryan Evans and Alex Wendt were first on the scene, assessed the situation and called for additional resources. A rescue unit with Chief Colin Altman, Firefighter/EMT Nick Miller-Jacobson and Intern Jonas Robin arrived soon after. They set up safety lines and went to work.
“The dog looked like she was in a dire situation, so we had to act quickly,” said Miller-Jacobson. The dog continued to struggle at the edge of the ice.
See remembered his son kept a kayak in the barn, so he brought that down to the pond. Miller-Jacobson and See walked the kayak across the solid ice to the water, and Miller-Jacobson got in the kayak.
“Nick reached down, and got her, and they pulled him out with the rope,” said See.
The terrified terrier’s tag identified her as “Sissy” and had the owner’s phone number on it. The squad quickly took Sissy to the rescue unit and began to dry and warm the dog back to normal. She appeared to be uninjured, and soon the owner had been reached by phone.
The owner explained that around 8:30 a.m. that morning, their three dogs had gotten loose from their yard, which is in Fairborn, roughly two miles away from See’s property. The owner was out searching for the dogs when they received the call about Sissy.
The owner was soon reunited with Sissy and thanked the squad and Mr. See. The owner then resumed the search for their other two dogs, who were located soon after. All are now safe and sound.
Sissy was unavailable for comment.
A service switch
See said that when he called 911, he wasn’t entirely sure who would show up, but was impressed by the squad’s quick response time and their handling of the situation.
See’s home is within Bath Township, and until recently the area had been part of the Fairborn Fire Department’s jurisdiction. But late last year, Miami Township Fire-Rescue began contracting with the eastern portion of Bath Township, according to Miami Township Fire Chief Colin Altman.
“The board of trustees for Bath Township decided to seek alternate services,” Altman said.
Bath Township had been part of the Fairborn service area for around 40 years, but Fairborn was planning to almost double the rate they were charging for emergency services, according to Altman. Bath Township ended up dividing services between the Miami Township, Bethel Township and Beavercreek fire departments.
Chief Altman noted that since adding the new service area to their jurisdiction Jan. 1, the station has seen an increase in the number of calls they receive, but the volume is comfortably within their service capacity.
Altman also joked that Miller-Jacobson was now their “official dog rescuer.” Two years ago, he and Ryan Evans rescued another dog, from Clifton Gorge, having to rappel about 50 feet down the steep walls of the gorge to remove the imperiled pup from an inaccessible area of the Little Miami River.
That dog was safely rescued, but had no identification and went unclaimed by an owner. Having spent time with the dog at the station, Firefighter Alex Wendt and his wife adopted the dog and named him Chester.
“He’s been a fantastic addition to our family.” Wendt reports Chester is happy and healthy.