“The more time you have with people, the deeper you can go.”
An Interview with Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, directors of “American Factory”
What happens when a Chinese multinational company re-opens a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, hiring both Chinese and American laborers and managers to work together? In this impressive chronicle of an epic culture clash, filmmakers Bognar and Reichert balance the intimate, hard-knocks stories of workers from both sides of the world with the larger complex geopolitical stakes at play. Winners of Sundance 2019’s Best Directing Award, Bognar and Reichert speak about making films based in the Midwest, patiently, and finding your film amidst over 1200 hours of footage.
How do you think being based in small-town Ohio influences your filmmaking, and “American Factory,” in particular?
Julia: The most important one is who are our neighbors, and who do we see and hang out with on a daily basis. Our neighbors are postal workers, schoolteachers, and some factory workers—regular people. People don’t know what Sundance is and why it matters. What that means for us is that it leads us to the real stories that our community is going through, and that’s a great gift to us. We don’t have to fly in and out; we just live here. It’s usually a short drive to make our films. Another thing is that it’s much less expensive to live here. And because of that, we can afford to take a gamble on some projects. And we have all the gear in our house, so if we need to take 2-3 years to direct and edit something, we can, so that’s a huge advantage.
And “American Factory”?
Steve: The more time you have to spent time with the people in your films, the deeper you can go. It can be a huge factor. We were in that factory and in their houses for three solid years. And that allowed us to understand the world, be in the world, and evoke that world as we constructed the film.
Julia: There’s perhaps more trust because people know that we live here. We’re not going away. If we make a film that’s not going to represent people well, they know where we live. It’s trust. Also having made “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” so many people had seen that film around here, and it opened so many doors.
Having shot for three years, with over 1200 hours of materials, how did you find the story of “American Factory” and edit it down?
Julia: It was a great boon to us that we had editor Lindsay Utz. She brought a different verite sensibility, and emphasized the verite scenes and build the film around that. At one point, we rented a house in Key West Florida, and we all spent every single day watching an 8-hour assembly that Lindsay had put together. We gave every scene a name, and put the cards on the wall, and figured out what were acts one, two, and three, and what were the turning points. It wasn’t the exact template, but it gave us the confidence of the acts, and the characters. But we had to decide early on this was not a character-driven film. That’s not to say that there weren’t central characters, but this is not a film about the Chairman, or one worker, but the story was: Will this endeavor succeed?
Steve: And success for who?
Julia: Yes, does success mean profits? Or does it mean that these jobs become good jobs? And we tried to show all those perspectives. We also had a major plot point, in the union battle, which we hadn’t anticipated. And then we knew we had a film.
Steve: Initially, we were also just wondering how these people were going to work together. Then we started to see the gap between the assumptions and understanding was far bigger than we predicted. And then we realized this was a chance to offer a snapshot of the global workforce today and how they’re faring. And we’re not just talking about blue collar Americans, but millions of Chinese working far from home. We’re in a major shift in the global economy, with globalization and automation, so the average working person doesn’t have any say or agency, buffeted around by these larger forces.
Regarding the Chinese characters, what were challenges and choices you made in not representing the Chinese as “other” or bad, because I think that was a risk here, particularly for the film’s U.S. audience?
Steve: Every scene, every line, we thought about how we represent the Chinese points of view, culture, and business practices. Our Chinese co-producers were totally essential in the making of the film, but also in post-production. They were so important to us. And we had to be really careful. We wanted to engender empathy and understanding for the Chinese character’s points of view. The film can’t do everything. But the context is that the Chinese are coming out of this agrarian economy into this period of huge growth, which is a source of pride, and we saw a level of ambition and drive in China that we don’t see here. And we wanted to make sure the film wasn’t rooted in American anxieties about that. It would be easy to root the film in this Midwestern unease. We wanted you to feel that anxiety, but we also wanted to make a film that was a bigger house for all these different points of view.