Interview with Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert of “American Factory”

Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar filming AMERICAN FACTORY ©Netflix

I watched directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s powerful new documentary American Factory at the 2019 Maryland Film Festival(after which I reviewed the film at Hammer to Nail) and though I couldn’t interview them there or at AFI DOCS, where the film also played, I was able to talk to them on the phone at the end of the July. Their movie, which tells the fascinating story of how the Chinese glass company Fuyao opened an American branch in an abandoned GM plant outside Dayton, OH, arrives on Netflix on August 21. Chronicling the ups and downs of Fuyao’s introduction to the United States, and the many labor and legal issues that followed, the film is remarkable not only for the gripping narrative at its core, but also for its seemingly unfettered access to its subjects. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Film poster: “American Factory”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: To begin with, how did you negotiate your fabulous access, particularly with the Fuyao folks? I’m just so impressed with how you’re embedded with all the administrators and managers. 

Julia Reichert: Well, we previously made a film called The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. That actually led directly to our being able to make this film, because when Fuyao was going to come to town, some of the folks with the Dayton Development Corporation said, “Wow, this is historic, we should have a record of this,” and they talked to the chairman of Fuyao, and he agreed. They said, “Well, we have these two filmmakers who made this film called The Last Truck. Why don’t you take a look at it?” The chairman watched it. In Dayton, it’s a very well-known story and got an Oscar nomination. I’m sure that helped.

Anyway, once the chairman of Fuyao, who is a bit of a maverick, said, “Yes, I want to do this,” and, “Yes, I agree to what the filmmakers want,” we were good. I’ll tell you what those things were that we wanted: 1) we would take absolutely no money from the company at all, and 2) they would have no editorial control over the film. Of course, we would show it to them before it was done, and we would listen to what their concerns might be, but they would have no editorial control. And 3) we would have complete access for virtually everything, whether it be the white-collar area, HR, the people on the plant floor working, the engineers …

And he said yes. He wanted this to be a real documentary, and transparency is one of the things he stands on, so that’s what happened. In a Chinese company like this, a private company – it’s not a government company – once the chairman says yes, everybody, certainly every Chinese person falls in line like, “OK, we might not like this, but it’s happening.” So that’s how it happened.

CLR:  Indeed. I’m curious if you ever had to renegotiate access if and when they sensed that things were turning sour on the union side, worried perhaps about how they might come across in the finished film?

Steven Bognar: Well, remarkably, we didn’t. I mean, there were meetings we didn’t get into, all along the way. That happened occasionally, where someone would say, “All right, guys, not this one.” And we were always asking them to get into meetings and stuff. But the overall agreement lasted through the duration of the filming and that’s great. That’s very much to the chairman’s credit. The early days, it was easy to say yes because things were really optimistic. There was so much good will going in both directions, Chinese to American, American to Chinese. But then, as things got harder, as the factory was not making a profit, as pressure was mounting on everybody, it would have been easy to say, “Yeah, OK, film crew, we don’t want you here anymore.” And they didn’t do that. And that is a testament to their commitment to make a real record of how hard it was, how challenging it was.

JR: I want to say one more thing about access. You know, we’re filmmakers, so this is very important work to us. It’s one thing to be granted access, it’s another thing to become the kind of people in the story in the room, in the factory, whatever, who are well-accepted, who are trusted, who are kind of understood. We were there all the time. People got to know us. The white-collar people saw us, “Hey, hi, how you doing? How’s it going for you today? What happened with that thing you told me about last week?” The workers confided in us. We interviewed the president on a regular basis, not that it’s in the film. We also saw the chairman every time he came, we sat down with him. Sometimes we even had dinner with him or lunch with him and a few other people. So it’s one thing to get access, but it’s another thing to gain people’s trust and to actually become part of the wallpaper. We became part of the whole birth of that plant. We were the ones who were there documenting it.

Still from AMERICAN FACTORY ©Netflix

CLR: Different filmmakers approach filmmaking differently, but it feels like the classic fly-on-the-wall approach, and I think you did a great job with that. What about on the American side? Were there any challenges negotiating with the workers, particularly as we get into the union strife?

SB: So, we didn’t go in with a set of characters we were trying to find. It’s more that we took months to get to meet people, look around, see who we were drawn to, whose backstory might be compelling. And in the early days, there was talk of a union campaign, but it wasn’t a factor. It wasn’t happening yet. So, there was no kind of anxiety about it. But as the union campaign heated up, especially in 2017 – we filmed between early 2015 and the end of 2017, basically, three years – there were definitely workers who started getting anxious about being on camera, wearing their union t-shirt or being out there concerned about, “Is this too much exposure?”

And in some cases, we were like, “Well, we don’t want to get anyone in trouble” or whatever. But there were other workers who were right out front, and they would remind us that it’s a legal right to wear pro-union stuff, right? It’s OK. It is a legally protected right to be pro-union. And so they felt like, “Why are we cowering? Why should anyone cower?” And so they were upfront with us.

JR: Turns out it was good reason to cower, though, as you saw in the film …

CLR: How large was, in general, your crew size and how did the two of you divide roles, since you’re both co-directors?

JR: Well, we’re like scrappy independents and the people we bring in are also like that. A couple of them were people we had had in class and had trained, and another was our nephew Jeff; we’ve worked on his films, he’s worked on our film. So it’s kind of almost like a family kind of thing. We all knew each other really well and a crew consisted of a person with a microphone on the top of his or her camera. In general, we didn’t have a two- or three-person crew. We had one-person crews and we had five cinematographers. Steve and I shot more than probably anybody else, but the others shot a lot, too. The place is really big, and we had a huge number of characters that we were following and after a while it was like, “OK, you’re going to follow that person, and so and so, and you’re going to follow that person and so and so and so and so.”Oh, and when the Chinese co-producers came in, some of them actually could shoot and talk. Some of them had to have one of us with them as they were talking to the Chinese workers or the folks in China.

CLR: That makes sense, in terms of trying to limit one’s footprint and impact. One of your cinematographers, Erick Stoll, is co-director of another documentary that I really admire, América.

JR: He’s my former student. I’m so proud of him. Beautiful film.

CLR: It really is.

JR: So great that it got on the festival circuit. It’s their first feature. Yeah. I mean, he lives in Cincinnati, so our deal with Erick at first was he just needed rent money. He was struggling because he was editing that film and really didn’t have much of an income, so we said, “Erick, look, we can pay you,” I think it was “$300 a day to come up every Wednesday.” He would come around 10 o’clock before shift change and stay the rest of the day. We’d give him lunch and we did that every week for a long time. We didn’t have any money and he needed money, so it was a lot like that.

When our nephew Jeff would fly out – and Jeff has made three other films and has a very good camera – we would pay his airfare but nothing else. We’d feed him. He’d stay at our house. He’d come about once a month. We had Erick there once a week. Jeff there a couple of weeks or 10 days every month. So there was a kind of consistent presence. And then once the Chinese women, Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li, the co-producers, started coming, they came, one of them, about once a month. And we also, of course, kept in email contact and text contact, and every now and then we’d show up at a bar where everybody was, or a restaurant where everybody was.

SB: The Chinese co-producers really opened up the film. We realized fairly early on that we were missing half the story, the Chinese perspective. The Chinese emotional experience of being so far from home and of missing their kids. And when Yiqian and Mijie started coming to Ohio every month and when we went to China with them, they just made a huge difference in the film. It was crucial to the film being what it became.

CLR:  Sure. I can imagine. So what do you think your film – although it’s about a very specific place – says about the current union crisis in America? Because there are so many people in the film who are scared to join the union or are able to be convinced that this union will not help them and that it’s better to rely on the benevolent overlords in factory management. Whereas, in the past, in the United States, unions were quite strong, and they were hard-fought and became strong in the early 20th-century all the way up until probably the ‘80s, when …

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Fuyao Chairman Cho Tak Wong, both center, at opening of plant in AMERICAN FACTORY ©Netflix

JR: I’m really, really, really glad you’ve brought this up because it is one of the things we most learned about. We learned about a lot of things making this film, obviously China and cultural things. We already knew a lot about the blue-collar working class of America because that’s what I come from and that’s who we’ve been following for all these years, our neighbors and citizens who were there, and because we live in Dayton, so we know people’s lives. What we were really surprised to find is that the union-avoidance company that was brought in, and brought in from very early on … what impact they had on that election. It was a constant drumbeat of these captive meetings where you have to go, and you hear it over and over again. Somebody recorded one for us. They would never allow us into a meeting, or they would never allow us to shoot them. They were very kind of abrasive about that, to be honest.

But they’re really trying to confuse people. Even their name gets confused with what the National Labor Relations Board is. The NLRB, the LRI, people didn’t know really which was which. We have a whole scene about that that we didn’t use. So we were shocked to see how strong an influence they were. And by the way, this is not a Chinese thing, this is not something the Chinese brought into the plant. They were taught by the consulting firm how to break and fight the union. So I think their goal was to confuse people, to scare people, but they would walk up to the line of illegality but not necessarily cross it. But what did cross the line, and I think this was so decisive, is that workers who over lunch break would talk union and would say, “Hey, do you want to sign a card?” and “I’m pro-union,” or workers who wore a union t-shirt or were known to be activists were getting fired left and right, and everybody could see that.

They weren’t fired for being pro-union because that’s illegal, but they were targeted. They were followed and reasons were found to fire them. That outraged me when I saw it because in America, you know how much we fight to protect elections? We fight to protect democratic elections, right? We want fairness in our democracy. We don’t want people intimidated and confused. We want people to make up their own minds without coercion. Well, that was not a fair election. That was not a democratic election. When you can pick people off who believe in a certain side and get rid of them the way the company did, that is not a fair election and it made me think we need to fight for … if funding comes out of this film, there’s a lot of things, this is one thing, we need to fight for fair union elections.

CLR:  And fair elections beyond unions, as well. Indeed.

SB: Now, Chris, the company might argue that and Micah, the attorney, says it in the film, “Well, the UAW [United Auto Workers] is trying to persuade workers as well, and so what’s wrong with us trying to persuade workers?” Micah also says in the film, “UAW has the whole entire world to get workers together and persuade them, and so while the workers are in our factory, on our clock getting paid, why can’t we make it stop?”

JR: Well, it goes way beyond persuasion. When you start firing people, that’s intimidation.

CLR:  Plus, a disinformation campaign is different from persuasion. So yes, I think your film illustrates that very well. Let’s end with a shout-out to your editor, Lindsay Utz. How much footage did you have by the time she sat down to work on the movie?

SB: Lindsay did an amazingly heroic job. We had over 1200 hours of footage for three years of filmmaking. And she worked for 18 months on this movie. She started from raw footage. She watched and took notes and made certain selects or noted what she was drawn to, watching raw footage for something like six, seven months. And then, we all got together and we kind of made a huge map, a road map of what we thought the movie should be and who should be in it.

Still from AMERICAN FACTORY ©Netflix

JR: Cards on the wall, if you can picture that: act one, act two, act three. We all got together adjusting that.

SB: Picture a huge wall of cards and then basically, for the next 10, 11 months, she carried this boulder up the hill. We were all there with her and we had an amazing team. Lindsay’s a brilliant editor in that she delegates. She never spends time looking for anything. She has these assistant editors and she’ll say, “I need a shot of this. I need a shot of that,” and she finds it.

JR: And there’s a bevy of assistant editors and some of them waded through footage as well.

SB: But anyway, she just did heroic work.

CLR:  And your film reflects her work as well as yours. It’s really an astounding documentary and I hope upon its release as many people as possible see it.

Intrigued? Watch the film on Netflix starting August 21!

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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