Fresh off winning their first Oscar, professor emeritus Julia Reichert and former motion pictures faculty member Steven Bognar returned to Wright State University to celebrate with students and faculty during a special gathering at the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures Feb 13.
Reichert and Bognar visited Wright State four days after winning the Oscar for best documentary feature for “American Factory” at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony.
The film, which Reichert and Bognar directed and produced, focuses on the opening of the Fuyao Glass America plant at the site of a former General Motors truck plant in Moraine. The documentary captures the complicated relationship between Fuyao, the Chinese glass manufacturer that owns the new plant, and its American employees, some of whom worked at the GM truck plant before it closed in 2008, putting more than 1,000 workers out of jobs.
“American Factory” was developed when Bognar served as a faculty member in Wright State’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures. Fourteen Wright State motion pictures alumni worked on the film.
With their Oscars in hand, Reichert and Bognar discussed a variety of topics with about 100 students and faculty from the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures.
Reichert described “American Factory” as a film about whether the plant and the endeavor to merge American and Chinese cultures will succeed, and what that success looks like for the blue-collar workers compared to the plant owner, managers, the engineers and supervisors.
“They all have a different sense of what success is for them,” she said. “That’s one reason the film has so many points of view. Everybody is going through something hard in that film. Everybody is trying really hard. And you have to honor that and recognize the situation you’re filming.”
Bognar described the process of making “American Factory” as a “crazy journey,” noting that when they started working on it in February 2015, he and Reichert didn’t know what the film would be.
“It was just a notion, possibly a good story,” he said. As they worked on the film, Bognar said, the story got bigger and more challenging.
“We got more and more ambitious,” he said. “We thought ‘there’s something big here, we’ve got to dive deep into the filming.’ And we dove as deep as we possibly could, we swam as hard as we possibly could for years.”
They talked about working with former President Barrack Obama and Michelle Obama, whose production company Higher Ground, produced the film for Netflix. “Their support for the film has been like rocket fuel,” Bognar said. “They helped the film go further into the world than it may ever have.”
Reichert and Bognar encouraged students who want to make documentaries to embrace the unpredictable nature of the filmmaking process. Don’t flinch when something uncomfortable happens, Reichert said.
“That’s something you learn as a documentarian — to roll with the punches,” she said. “It’s so different from fiction. That’s the fun of it too.”
Bognar said documentary filmmakers have to learn not to predict what will happen when working on a film. “If you do that you might miss the more important thing that’s actually happening, the subtle thing,” he said. “As a documentary maker you want to notice the subtle thing.”
They shared stories about screening the film at festivals and their experience at the Academy Awards. Before the Oscar ceremony, they rehearsed both walking to the stage and their speeches numerous times. “When I got in front of the microphone, I felt my job was to deliver this speech in a very passionate and personal way,” Reichert said. “I have to really put this speech across and I was focused on that.”
They also discussed how filmmaking has changed over the years; shared stories about their experiences making their other films; ethical decisions documentary filmmakers have to consider; and gave lots of advice to the film students in attendance.
In addition to the Oscar, “American Factory” won the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary; the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature; Outstanding Achievement in both Directing and Nonfiction Filmmaking by Cinema Eye Honors; and the Best Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Reichert and Bognar’s next documentary, “9to5: The Story of A Movement,” will premiere at SXSW March 13–22 in Austin, Texas. The film tells the story of American secretaries who took to the streets in the 1970s to protest on-the-job abuse and ultimately created a movement dubbed 9to5.
They documented the final days of the General Motors truck plant before it was shuttered in their 2010 HBO film “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” It was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject documentary.
Their film “A Lion in the House” won the Primetime Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking and the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media.
For 28 years, Reichert was a professor of film production at Wright State. She has mentored filmmakers from around the country and is co-founder of Indie Caucus, the action group working to keep the documentary form alive and well on PBS. Reichert received Academy Award nominations for “Union Maids,” “Seeing Red” and “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.”
Bognar is a former Wright State faculty member and a 1986 graduate of the Wright State Motion Pictures program.