When American Factory was announced on Monday as one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature, among the first to congratulate filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were Barack and Michelle Obama.
“Glad to see American Factory’s Oscar nod for Best Documentary,” the former president tweeted. “It’s the kind of story we don’t see often enough.” Mrs. Obama added in a tweet of her own, “So thrilled that Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, and all of the incredible people behind #American Factory are nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar!”
The shoutouts were by no means random. The Obamas executive produced the film through their company Higher Ground Productions, which has a deal with Netflix. They came on board after the film premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Bognar and Reichert won the directing award for documentary.
“It’s very meaningful to us that they believe in the film,” Bognar says of the former president and first lady. Reichert notes, “They’re both storytellers. They’ve both written awesome books and you know when the president gives a talk, he’s telling stories. I mean, that’s what he does. And they have always elevated artists.”
American Factory constitutes something of a sequel to the couple’s 2009 Oscar-nominated short film The Last Truck, which documented the closing of a GM plant outside Dayton, Ohio, near where Bognar and Reichert live. Years afterward the abandoned plant remained vacant, slowly going to seed, a potent symbol of industrial decline and the dashed hopes of working people.
“It had been a blight, this really sad place that a lot of people had to drive by every day,” Reichert tells Deadline. “Raccoons living in there, rusting, homeless people living in there. I mean, it was really sad. But then the news hit that somebody is going to start manufacturing again. Somebody bought the plant.”
That “somebody” was Fuyao, a Chinese auto glass giant owned by billionaire entrepreneur Cao Dewang. American Factory chronicles the economic, cultural and political challenges that emerged as Fuyao set up shop in western Ohio. Initially, excitement swelled in the community at the prospect of returning jobs—though non-union and at drastically lower wages than what GM had paid.
The plant would be something of a smelting pot, combining Americans with counterparts from abroad.
“What we didn’t quite realize,” Bognar recalls, “is how many Chinese people were going to come over to both manage and work on the line, to manage, teach, because most people in Dayton didn’t know glass production.”
American Factory contains amusing and endearing scenes of Americans and Chinese attempting to understand each other across a divide of language and customs.
“At the beginning there was a lot more of that sort of inviting people over to each other’s houses and having barbecues and just trying to learn each other’s cultures. There was kind of a real curiosity there on the part of most of the American workers,” Reichert observes. “That started happening less and less as the pressure of profit [increased]—‘We’ve got to work faster, faster and faster’ and the plant got to be very hot and not a good place to work and the safety concerns were not being addressed.”
As time passed, friction grew.
“At first it was like, ‘It’s a start-up! We’re making 12 bucks [an hour]! We’re going to make it happen! We want this plant to succeed!’ That faded away,” Reichert recalls. “The whole Chinese management style totally rubbed the Americans the wrong way. And I saw it. We saw it. They want you to do something and your supervisor, who’s probably Chinese, says, ‘Do this.’ And they walk away. They don’t say why…The Americans are much more used to, ‘Why do I have to do it that way? I think I know a better way.’”
Bognar adds, “Americans want to know, ‘What’s the goal here?’ And the Chinese are like, ‘We can talk about that later. Let’s get to work.’” Notes Reichert, “It was really a huge cultural clash.”
From the Chinese management point of view, many American workers may have appeared prickly and unmotivated. The filmmakers see the conflict as a matter of expectations—the Chinese workers could take pride knowing they were doing far better than their parents’ generation. For the American workers, that wasn’t the case.
“We [Americans] look back at our parents and say, ‘Well, they had good union jobs. They had better vacations than we do. They had better benefits than we do now. They were secure,’” comments Reichert, who comes from a working class background. “I felt like I really understand why those workers were not as loyal to the company, were not as motivated to work 12 hour days, didn’t feel like they were building for the future in a way.”
Reichert has been making films about the American labor movement since the 1970s—her 1976 film Union Maids is considered a classic. But American Factory maintains an evenhanded tone, and doesn’t cleave along sharply ideological lines. It’s politically engaged without being partisan.
“For us the film is very pro-working people, whether those people be American, Chinese or wherever they’re from,” comments Jeff Reichert, Julia’s nephew, who produced the documentary and shares in the Oscar nomination along with his aunt and Bognar. “It was important for us to try not to fall into easy stereotypes, to make the film feel like it’s skewed too firmly towards one side or another.”
This is the fourth Academy Award nomination for Reichert, whose filmmaking career began 50 years ago, and the second for Bognar, who is also her life partner. They are no strangers, then, to the Oscars red carpet, but whether the Obamas will join them at the ceremony is an open question. It seems unlikely, given that the former first couple has kept the focus away from themselves and on the filmmakers.
“They have been very upfront about this is a movie that Steve and Julia made, and they are the storytellers and they are the artists who put this whole thing together,” Jeff Reichert tells Deadline. “They’ve been great to work with.”
As for how the filmmaking team is preparing for the big day in Hollywood, Jeff says they’re keeping it simple. Not a lot of consultants fretting over their wardrobe.
“Stylist? Please, we’re only making documentary films here,” Jeff laughs. “I talked to Steve this morning and the last time when he and Julia were nominated for The Last Truck, he rented a tuxedo in Dayton and flew it out to LA with him, and so I think I will probably do something similar…I’m honestly not totally sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a pretty great thing and a pretty wild ride.”
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