'American Factory' Co-Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert on Surprise Oscars Guests

Five stars (or subjects) from their Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary will be walking the red carpet at tonight's Oscar telecast.
Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Barack and Michelle Obama are not expected to attend tonight's Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, during which American Factory — the Netflix film backed by their production company, Higher Ground — is projected to take home the gold. But co-directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert tell The Hollywood Reporter that they will be accompanied at the Dolby Theatre by some surprise guests. 

"Five stars of the movie will be with us," Bognar revealed on the blue carpet Saturday at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, where the two accepted the best documentary trophy and delivered a powerful speech. "And by stars, we mean five of the factory workers are coming to the Oscars. They are trading in their heavy factory clothes, cut protectors, safety glasses and gloves in favor of gowns. They look so great, and we're so proud and excited to be going there and celebrating them."

The Netflix doc, produced and financed by Participant, is set in an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio that reopens when Chinese billionaire chairman Cao Dewang buys it and turns it into windshield factory Fuyao Glass America. As the story unfolds, the film captures the initial optimism of plant employees that, over time, is tempered by increasing demands from management in the chase for profits. It mixes humor and heartbreak as it paints a picture of life in small-town America while allowing the workers to share their personal journeys of trying to scrape together a living. 

Bognar added that the chairman was also on board to attend the Oscars, but due to the coronavirus outbreak, he's now no longer able to come. "He was flying in with his own plane and we had a ticket for him [to the Oscars], but because of the virus, he can't leave China," he explained. "He decided not to endanger anybody, which was wonderful of him."

Following Sunday's Oscar telecast, the American Factory crew will celebrate at a private party, capping off a season that has been generous. They have won more than a dozen best documentary prizes from awards groups and critics' organizations including the DGA, the National Board of Review, the Gotham Awards, the International Documentary Association and the Sundance Film Festival, where, following its debut, the film was picked up by the Obamas as the first offering from their production company.

The wild ride has delivered countless pinch-me moments for both Bognar and Reichert, the latter of whom is making the awards season rounds while also battling cancer via chemotherapy treatments. Asked for her most memorable moment, Reichert didn't hesitate, even if the experience has been an unnatural one to claim. "Something I have really loved is that women who are more than half my age, even in their 20s or early 30s, have asked for selfies or for my autograph," she said. "At first, it's kind of embarrassing, but then I think, you know, if they're going to have a role model, I'm not a bad role model. I'm a working-class kid from a small town who worked her ass off and makes films about working people, regular people." 

Bognar looked on as Reichert shared her story, adding that she deserves the success and attention. His most memorable moment happened far away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood's red carpet-laden awards season. "We were are the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, and we met For Sama filmmakers Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts and one of the stars, Hamza Al-Khateab," he said. "We all went swimming in Lake Michigan, and nearby, these two little kids were tossing a football in the water. They were probably 8-year-olds. and they threw the ball to Hamza who had never played football. Here he is, this brilliant doctor from Syria who survived bombing and shelling, and he's just tossing a football with two little kids. The poetry of that moment really was amazing."