'American Factory' Directors Talk Trump, Globalization and Oscar Gold

Chuck Kennedy/Netflix
Steven Bognar, Michelle Obama, Julia Reichert, Barack Obama

"I'll be real honest, it would be extremely meaningful," Julia Reichert, a four-time nominee now battling terminal cancer, told THR about possibly holding an Oscar trophy.

After losing out three times in Oscar's best documentary category, American Factory co-director Julia Reichert is certainly ready to finally take home an Academy Award. 

"I'll be real honest, it would be extremely meaningful after four nominations and my age and my state of life. It would be very meaningful," Reichert, who is undergoing chemotherapy as she battles terminal cancer at age 73, told THR. "There's no cure for what I have. And it could be six months, a year, or more." 

The Oscar-nominated feature portrays a Chinese billionaire launching a factory in an abandoned GM car plant in Ohio and hiring around 2,000 Americans to work alongside Chinese workers. High-tech China soon clashes with blue-collar America.

The Netflix documentary, the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama's production company Higher Ground Productions, earned Oscar nominations for co-director Reichert, Steven Bognar and Jeff Reichert.

Bognar earned his second career nomination after a previous nomination along with Reichert for The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, a 2008 HBO film. Reichert also received an Oscar nomination in 1977 for her feature-length documentary Union Maids.

American Factory, coming off a DGA Awards win this weekend, made Oscar's latest documentary shortlist alongside National Geographic's The Cave, Netflix's The Edge of Democracy, PBS' For Sama and Neon's Honeyland.

The Dayton-based filmmakers' feature chronicles the abandoned General Motors car plant restored by a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, as a post-industrial Ohio windshield factory, Fuyao Glass America. The film initially captures the optimism of Dayton residents about their future, only to eventually be tempered by increasing demands by Chinese management for elusive profits.

Issues of language and culture finally culminate with a divisive union drive and vote aggressively opposed by the Fuyao management. Bognar, Reichert and their team, which included Chinese co-producers Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang, spent three years chronicling Fuyao Glass America’s launch, with Participant Media on board as a producer.

Their take on a resurrected glass-making factory in the U.S. Midwest nabbed the support of Higher Ground Productions and Netflix after it premiered at Sundance last year. American Factory is in part a follow-up to The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,  which captured the last days of the once-thriving union shop. American Factory delivers a surprising look at the impact of industrial globalization now playing out in towns and cities across Trump-era America.

"Did Donald Trump help us get financing for American Factory? Honestly, I would say it did," Reichert said. She and Bognar talked to THR about possible Oscar glory, the future of working-class America and Reichert's 50-year career chronicling the lives of Midwesterners often forgotten or ignored by bicoastal media outlets.

American Factory looks to have given you surprising access to workers and management inside the Dayton plant denied to you when making The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant for HBO in the same factory.

Steven Bognar: It's strangely ironic that the American company that was based in our town would not allow us into the factory, but here comes this Chinese company who gives us amazingly open access. When we were filming The Last Truck, we were on the outside [of the factory]. We asked for permission to go inside and were told no. So we took the point of view of the workers. With American Factory, we were given great access, so we felt a responsibility and an opportunity to tell a story from multiple perspectives.

Once inside, you captured American workers frustrated by Fuyao’s way of doing business and Chinese workers seemingly never taking time off after leaving family and home far behind. How did you bridge a language and cultural divide to present all the voices in the factory?

Bognar: We realized early on we had a big canyon between us and the Chinese workers who had come from Fujian to Ohio. To them, our little town, which we love, is a foreign outpost. It's like being sent to Siberia. It's a world they don't know. And we couldn't really connect with them. We could see their faces, see their isolated little apartments and that they're working long hours. And we just realized we need to try to connect with them with Chinese filmmakers. That's when [Chinese producers] Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang started coming to Ohio.

Through your Chinese co-producers, you connected to surprisingly engaging Chinese characters in your film.

Bognar: There's Wong He, the furnace operator, who misses his kids, whom he's not seen in two years, and he does a quiet confession where he breaks down and cries. We would have never been able to talk to him, let alone create a moment of intimacy. That was [Chinese producer] Zhang and Wong having a conversation and I'm filming it without any idea what they're talking about.

They must also have helped knowing when someone -- Chairman Dewang, especially -- was making an important statement or aside and you could get the context right.

Bognar: It's not just the literal translation. There's all kinds of cultural awareness that was required. Chinese is a very subtle language. You can say different things with your intonation. The same word can have four meanings. So every line of Mandarin Chinese spoken in the film was translated and cross-checked by different translators. We were very aware we could make mistakes, and we didn't want to.

American Factory feels like you also wanted to capture the experience of both workers and management without taking sides.

Julia Reichert: Every film is different. In American Factory, we wanted to hear different points of view and allow them all to be given respect, and there's no bad guys. In Union Made and The Last Truck, we took the point of view of the workers. It's about finding the beating heart of each film you're making, finding what's the most important thing you can say. For American Factory, it was multiple experiences and points of view.

As you and your cameras made your way round the factory, did you encounter suspicion from either workers or management, like you may have been spying for one side over the other?

Reichert: I definitely never felt like a spy. We never used a hidden camera. We never used a hidden microphone. And you know, if you're standing with a camera on a tripod or on your shoulder, it's obvious that we're filming. We felt very welcome.

Bognar: One way we work is with a multi-year commitment. We weren't flying in once every month or two. We went there all the time and shot 1,200 hours of material. We became deeply familiar with the plant to the point where we could walk in, with ID badges that allowed us through any door. It was kind of like showing up for work, not that we were making windshields, but we were doing our job side by side with everyone else. By year two or three, we had been there longer than a lot of people who actually worked there.

Factory work is by its nature repetitive. Someone does the same thing all day. Did that help you frame your shots, given the time to do so?

Reichert: Yes. I remember many, many days where I would watch a worker passing a window to another, or working alone, and I would be there for an hour figuring out the best light, exactly what motions they were doing -- where they put the glass after picking it up, how they handed it off to someone else, how it came out of a machine -- again and again and again. So one of the reasons we had such beautiful shots of people working is we were there for as much as an hour just getting a shot. And there was trust. People got used to us being there.

Bognar: We call this the industrial ballet. The beauty in the movement as people do the same kind of motion. And we just wanted to evoke that with dignity and respect, as people are working, in terms of framing and lighting and how they're portrayed.

Was American Factory's three-act structure -- the honeymoon of the factory reopening, then Chinese management and workers frustrated with the American workers, and the union vote -- clear to you during filming, or did it emerge in the edit suite?

Reichert: When we got to the union vote, we kind of knew the three acts of the film. We had no idea about that at first. What I'm really proud of is the wrap-up where everyone gives their life philosophy. The chairman is a Buddhist and talks about whether he's wrecking the environment or is a sinner or a contributor. One worker says the American Dream is gone; we're never going to make that money again. The next worker says you have to believe in the American Dream. It's not American to not believe in it. And then Wong says, as the young Chinese, we want it all, unlike our parents, who just wanted to survive. So everyone gets over their personal philosophy. And I think that's a really interesting ending.

Near the film's end, Chairman Dewang is surprisingly introspective. How did you capture that?

Reichert: That was done sitting in the chairman's beautiful office in China, on a couch, and there was only audio and no camera so he wouldn't have to watch his words as much as if he might be on TV. Just one of the two Chinese producers holding up an audio recorder. The chairman really liked her, as he saw her as kind of a granddaughter. And we're asking him as an older man to reflect back on his life, is there anything you might have done differently. We really had no idea what was being said. And when we heard the interview a month later, we were quite astounded at his statement of, really, his life concerns.

American Factory was shot during and after the 2016 U.S. election. Ohio was a key vswing state for Donald Trump. You didn't cover the election in your film, but I'm wondering whether your focus on factory workers in the Midwest helped secure financing for your documentary as Hollywood in 2016 scrambled to discover who were Trump voters.

Reichert: Did Donald Trump help us get financing for American Factory? Honestly, I would say it did. People on the West and East Coast after the election were holy, holy, we don't know anything about what's going on in the Midwest. They were shocked. We were not shocked that Donald Trump won, because we live there. The folks at Participant Media were already talking to us. But we literally got a call two or three days after the election and they had met and greenlit our film. So yes, it definitely was a factor in the coasts realizing they needed more material from the Midwest, and here we are, we live there. 

American Factory represents your fourth Oscar nomination. What would returning to the Academy Awards and winning your first trophy mean to you as filmmaker? 

Reichert: I'm going to be real honest with you. This is my fourth Oscar nomination for best documentary. The first one came when I was around 30 years old, and now I'm 73, and I've had four. And I've never won. I've been the frontrunner three times. And I have terminal cancer right now, and this is what's going to get me. There's no cure for what I have. And it could be six months, a year, or more. So I'll be real honest and say it would be great to win the award, despite the fact that all the other films are very good and the filmmakers are hard workers. They've done fantastic jobs. But for me, I'll be real honest, it would be extremely meaningful after four nominations and my age and my state of life. It would be very meaningful.