In advance of a Wex retrospective, the Ohio director reflects on her career as a documentary filmmaker, including critically acclaimed new Netflix doc 'American Factory'
In December of 2008, a GM plant near Dayton closed its doors, and Ohio filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar were there to document it for their 2009 film, “The Last Truck.” But the story didn’t end there.
Reichert and Bognar, who live in Yellow Springs, got to know many of the blue-collar workers from the plant, and the pair continued to follow their stories, some through a series of “Reinvention Stories” for public radio station WYSO.
“The story of what was going to happen to people after the economic crash was something we stayed with,” Reichert said recently by phone. “Then when that GM plant was bought by a Chinese billionaire entrepreneur, it was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
Cao Dewang, the chairman of Fuyao, a glass manufacturing company based in China, decided to establish his first American factory at the old GM plant in Moraine, Ohio, and after watching “The Last Truck,” he agreed to let Reichert and Bognar make a film about it.
“We said we would be interested in possibly making a film there, but we could take no money from the company at all. We would have to have complete editorial control and we would have to have full access. And much to his credit, he said yes,” Reichert said. “We didn't know what kind of story it was going to be. But we understood the stakes of the American blue collar workers. Because we had made ‘The Last Truck,’ we really understood the shock of losing their jobs and losing their sense of their future.”
For nearly three years, Reichert and Bognar filmed inside the Fuyao plant. The resulting documentary, “American Factory,” which is out now on Netflix, manages to tell multiple stories simultaneously without ever feeling jumbled. Through a cast of characters, the fascinating film touches on the state of American labor, unions, Chinese manufacturing, automation, clashes between American and Chinese cultures, and more.If you're curious to see what we'll publish next, we recommend signing up for our newsletter... unless you're a cat, because we don't want you to die.: Sign up for our daily newsletter
“We want to present different points of view,” Reichert said. “The management people [at Fuyao], some of whom we might think badly of, they feel like they're trying to keep the workers in line and get a product of good quality out the door. The workers are struggling with communication issues and are struggling to learn a whole new business, a whole new way of using their bodies. And they're struggling under a very different management style than Americans are used to. So everybody's facing something hard.”
Certain scenes from “American Factory,” such as Chinese workers reporting for duty in military fashion and singing heartfelt odes to Fuyao, can shock U.S. viewers. “The way [Chairman Cao Dewang] rallies his employees by appealing to their nationalism, we think that's a little horrifying. But he's proud of that. That's their culture. And he knows it’s going to work, and it's used all over China: ‘You're doing this for the mother country.’ I don’t judge that,” she said. “It's very different from what we do, and it's not what I would like. ... I'm not saying I embrace the Chinese point of view, but it is their point of view.”
Like most documentaries, the access Reichert gets to film such memorable scenes is crucial to the story, but access alone isn’t what makes “American Factory” and Reichert’s other films that span five decades so powerful. It’s trust.
“We got access to the factory, but how did we get people to really relax around us and be honest, even in meetings? How do we fade into the woodwork and become part of the wallpaper?” she said. “You have to be fueled by actual curiosity. You can't fake it. Find out why you are actually interested in this person and why you are interested in this story. … We loved being in the factory. It became our lives. We were curious about everybody and what they were going through. [We’d say], ‘You've got a hard job. What's it like today, and what keeps you up at night?’ That was a question we would ask anyone: worker, owner, management, HR. And there was lots that kept people up at night.”
“Julia and her partners over the years, Jim Klein and Steve Bognar, they are deeply committed to the people in their respective films,” said Dave Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center, who referred to Reichert as “the godmother of independent film in Ohio.” “From watching Julia’s films and the way that the people in the film are responding to her and her camera and her questions, you have a real sense that she laid the groundwork. She's earned their trust. She's developed this intimacy with the people that she's working with. It's really a rare thing, and her films seem incredibly genuine because of that. … You get a sense of this generosity of spirit behind the camera.”
For decades, Reichert has had a close relationship with the Wexner Center, and at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the arts center is bringing the filmmaker in for a talk, “Julia Reichert in Conversation: A Life in Film,” followed by a 7 p.m. screening of “American Factory.” Through Oct. 24, the Wex is also hosting a 10-documentary retrospective of her work; the career-spanning “Julia Reichert: 50 Years in Film” will then travel to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and more (the series first screened at MoMA in the spring).
When reflecting on her career, dating back to 1971 film “Growing Up Female,” Reichert noted a couple of common threads. “I see a through line of interest in work and working people and their fate — their agency or lack thereof,” Reichert said. “I’m from a working class family, and I know what that's like, in a good way. If you're a union family, which mine was — a Republican union family — you have security. No one's gonna turn the lights off. You're not gonna lose your house. You're not paycheck to paycheck.”
“And then women,” she continued. “The first few films, and the new one that we're working on ('9to5: The Story of a Movement'), are all about women and work. ‘Growing up Female’ and ‘Union Maids’ are about specifically women, although even in [other] films, you always hear the women's perspective.”
Filipi said the timing of the release of “American Factory” coinciding with the retrospective has been a happy accident.
“When we first started talking about this [retrospective], no one had any clue that ‘American Factory’ would end up being what it's ended up to be. It hadn't been accepted to Sundance [Film Festival] yet. It certainly hadn't won an award, and Netflix hadn't picked it up, and the Obamas hadn’t signed on to it. That's certainly increased the profile of Julia, of the film and of the retrospective,” he said. “Julia, Steve and Jim are very well known in documentary circles, but they're maybe not as well known if you go one ring outside of that into the independent film world. Hopefully this touring retrospective will correct a lot of that.”