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American Factory co-director Steven Bognar detailed how he and directing partner Julia Reichert’s storytelling approaches align with the Obamas’, while DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers and honoree Martin Scorsese nodded to the ongoing debate around what qualifies as “cinema” during the festival’s sixth annual Visionaries Tribute on Thursday in New York.
Kicking off the 2019 festival, which runs through Nov. 15, the event honored five creatives in the documentary world for their various contributions to the medium. In addition to Bognar and Reichert’s honors as recipients of the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, directors Scorsese and Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, 7 Up series) were presented with lifetime achievement honors.
The Leading Light Award, which recognizes an individual making a critical contribution to the documentary medium in a role other than a filmmaker, went to New York Women in Film & Television executive director Cynthia Lopez. D.A. Pennebaker was also honored posthumously for his work as a director, cinematographer and pioneer of cinema verité.
Before accepting his award alongside Reichert, Bognar spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the directing duo’s initial conversation with Barack and Michelle Obama, whose Netflix-based production company Higher Ground released American Factory. It was a discussion that he said illuminated one way their creative visions were aligned.
“When we sat down with them, we talked about the power of storytelling and how so many decisions in the world are made by data,” Bognar said. “Governments make decisions based on data. Companies make decisions by data. But data is only part of what impacts the world. The human narrative has to be a part of decision making. I can read statistics about what’s happening in Syria, but if you see the movie For Sama, it changes it, right? It just moves you and forces you to take action in a way that data will never.”
The first film in a slate of projects from Higher Ground, American Factory follows the lives of manufacturing workers in Dayton, Ohio, after a GM plant that closed in 2008 is reopened and taken over by a China-based auto-glass company. Bognar said he and Reichert “would be thrilled and honored” to work with the Obamas again. However, the burden was ultimately on the filmmakers to have a good idea.
Whether or not it happens, the directors do plan to continue working within the same topical veins and with the same approach that made American Factory a strong fit for Higher Ground.
“The Midwest stories of working people are very important to us,” Bognar said. “But we are two middle-aged, middle-class white filmmakers. We didn’t ever work in a factory. We also don’t presume to know how to do that. So when we made the film, we had to check ourselves. We showed a lot of test screenings. We had advisers who called us on our blind spots. We did that because we’re trying to represent different communities, even though in a geographic sense, it’s our community. Not every part of that community is ours, and we didn’t want to screw it up by misrepresenting or inaccurately representing them.”
The importance of representing diverse communities and shedding light on classism, racism and other forms of discrimination was somewhat of a theme among speakers at the luncheon. For Powers, it’s a ripe time for the kinds of stories celebrated at the event and throughout this year’s festival with the next presidential election just a year away, and the shadow of the 2016 event, which took place two days after Donald Trump’s election, still looms.
“I think back to three years ago at DOC NYC’s opening night, and I don’t think the festival was ever as meaningful to me as it was that year because you really felt a need for people to come together to take in stories, to re-energize themselves, to find inspiration,” Powers told THR. “I would say that year, you know, made me think about documentary filmmaking in a different way and its purpose in a different way.”
Directors Michael Moore and Alex Gibney, MTV Documentary Films head Sheila Nevins and producer Olivia Harrison served as presenters at the luncheon. Dr. Ruth Westheimer and members of the creative teams behind One Child Nation, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and the Syria-focused For Sama were all in the audience.
While Bognar and Reichert’s speech focused on the evolution of documentary filmmaking, including its slow but growing democratization, Scorsese and Apted both offered more sweeping remarks about their work and the medium. Compliments to fellow industry trailblazers were sprinkled throughout mentions of both directors’ creative inspirations, notes on their extensive catalogs and brief explanations of how documentary work has informed their other films.
“So much today has been said about cinema in terms of nonfiction that I just don’t want to be repetitive, but you said it better than I could,” Scorsese said during his speech, referencing an earlier comment made by Powers. “These are living organisms. We conserve them, and they could mean something to future generations.”
The Irishman director then noted there’s been “a lot of discussion around what cinema is these days,” to laughs. It was Scorsese’s only acknowledgment of the ongoing discussions around the definition of cinema, which was initially sparked by his comments on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It followed an earlier statement from Powers, delivered amid a speech on the risks involved with documentary filmmaking and the roles the luncheon’s honorees have played in supporting the medium.
“There’s Martin Scorsese himself, who has not only embodied artistic boldness in his own films, but he’s been our foremost champion of international cinema through his work through The Film Foundation,” Powers said. “If you haven’t gone to the Criterion Channel to look at all the films they have there that The Film Foundation has restored and the beautiful video essays that Martin Scorsese has introducing those films — that is a real superhero.”
After the ceremony, Powers, who also serves as the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, further clarified his statement about cinema, superheroes and where he thinks documentaries fall into the shifting landscape of the film industry.
“To me, documentary is the most exciting thing that’s happening in cinema today,” Powers told THR. “And, you know, as I said in my remarks on stage, it’s the place where you see true risk-taking happen. It’s artistic risk-taking, sometimes literal life risk-taking, and emotional risk-taking. The documentaries are where you feel real things at stake. Not, you know, when it’s over. It’s not an actor taking off their makeup.”
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