For more than a year and a half the documentary American Factory has been on the kind of awards run that dreams are made of.
It’s now in contention for three Emmys, earning nominations late last month for directing, cinematography and editing. At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where American Factory premiered, it won the documentary directing award for filmmaking couple Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. In between the film claimed numerous honors, most notably the Oscar for Best Documentary.
One of the highlights of the Oscar experience, the filmmakers say, came in bonding with their fellow nominees.
“We were always together, this whole cadre. And we really got close to everybody,” Bognar tells Deadline, adding the camaraderie kept them grounded amid the dizzying spectacle of awards season. “There is a lot of insanity and I don’t think documentarians are used to it… Suddenly we’re dressing up and we’re going out. We’re on red carpets and there’s a wall of cameras taking our picture. It was definitely disorienting but we held onto the lifeboat of our colleagues.”
American Factory is something of a hometown story for Bognar and Reichert, who live outside Dayton, Ohio. Their film explores what happened when a Chinese auto glass giant built a plant on the footprint of a shuttered GM factory near Dayton, a cross-cultural experiment that put workers dispatched from China together with local workers. The filmmakers attended the Oscars with several of the workers from the film, both Chinese and American.
“I felt like I was winning something for Ohio,” Reichert says of the Oscar victory. “I was winning something for Dayton. I was winning something for our hard-hit little part of the world that had been through such job loss.”
On stage, Reichert became perhaps the first person to ever reference The Communist Manifesto in an Oscar acceptance speech.
“We knew we were going to use that phrase, ‘Workers of the world unite,’” Reichert recalls. “We always tried to talk about the workers in the room [during awards speeches], or the workers who were underpaid and the wage gap. Millionaires building skyscrapers at the same time as people getting cheated out of their wages and not getting taken care of.”
Many of Reichert’s documentaries have focused on the labor movement, including Union Maids (1976) and The Last Truck (2009), both of which earned Oscar nominations. The Last Truck, directed with Bognar, recounts the closing of the very GM plant that later became the site of the Fuyao factory.
Working women, and their quest for equal pay and respect in the workplace, are the subject of the latest film from Reichert and Bognar, 9to5: The Story of a Movement. The documentary was all set to hold its world premiere at SXSW in March when the coronavirus emergency erupted.
“We’re just coming up for air, finishing the last day of sound mix when South by announces they’re canceling,” Bognar remembers. “It was crushing, honestly… But we also try to keep it in perspective when we think about all the folks who do South by, who program it and make it happen—they just lost a year of work.”
9to5 eventually made its premiere at AFI Docs, which shifted to an online format, and it has since screened at other festivals, including at a drive-in theater as part of the Lighthouse International Film Festival in New Jersey.
Reichert and Bognar expect to make an announcement soon about a distribution deal for 9to5. As for American Factory, it went to Netflix after the film was acquired by Higher Ground Productions, the company founded by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, which has a partnership with Netflix. On Oscar night the Obamas sent congratulatory tweets to the American Factory team, and the filmmakers recently heard from the Obamas anew, with fresh congratulations.
“I’m sitting here… looking at a beautiful bouquet, gorgeous, of white flowers that came the day of the Emmy nominations,” Reichert notes. “It was from ‘B.O., M.O.’ and Higher Ground, with a congratulatory note. It didn’t take long to figure out who B.O. and M.O. were.”
The last six months have been punctuated by milestones—the Oscar win, the Emmy nominations and premiering 9to5. But for Reichert it has also been a challenging time as she battles a recurrence of cancer that has required chemotherapy treatment. The Obamas, she says, again reached out with words of support.
“When I had a big setback during the year… I got individually, beautifully written, hand-written letters from each of them,” Reichert shares. “It just meant the world to me, that it wasn’t just like, ‘Get well soon,’ with flowers. It was really a letter from each of them.”
In a year-plus of multiple honors, Bognar takes particular note of one for his partner.
“Last year Julia finally got to have a retrospective [of her work], and it traveled to a bunch of different cities including LA and the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” he tells Deadline. “And at the same time, American Factory became a much talked about movie, and [with] that alignment, I feel like Julia finally got remembered. There’s something about living in the Midwest, where people forget about you a little bit. And it was great to see people remember, ‘Hey, this woman has been making films about the fight for working people to have a good life. She’s been telling the same kind of stories for 50 years,’ and here she’s getting her due. That was really beautiful.”
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