A Regional ‘American Factory’ Rises Again

"American Factory" — a new award-winning film from renowned local documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert — follows up on their previous documentary "The Last Truck," the story of a closed General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio.

Mar 21, 2019 at 2:55 pm
click to enlarge A scene from "American Factory." - Sundance Institute
Sundance Institute
A scene from "American Factory."

It is not often that the subject of a documentary feature demands a sequel, which is part of what makes American Factory — a new award-winning film from renowned documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert — such a stunning narrative achievement. Winner of the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, American Factory follows up on the story of a closed General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, which reopened under Chinese ownership in 2014. 

But first came Bognar and Reichert’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. In 2009, the documentary feature presented what seemed like, at the time, the last gasp of a regional American institution. That film debuted at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival, secured the backing of HBO and was eventually nominated for an Academy Award.  

Considering how American Factory nearly picks up immediately where The Last Truck left off, audiences can certainly be forgiven for assuming that the plant itself is the main character. Instead, it takes on the workers’ collective identity, whose individual stories could merge into an inspired tale rooted in the can-do mythology of the American spirit. Yet, something far more subtle happens during the course of the filmmakers’ deep immersion. While so much of the focus of American Factory zeroes in on the cultural and economic clashes between the American workers and the new Chinese owner and his management team — which initially attempts to include American representation — the film never panders by choosing one side over the other.

As filmmakers, Bognar and Reichert — who are based in Yellow Springs, Ohio — have maintained a fierce loyalty to capturing movements. Prior to The Last Truck, Reichert earned Academy Award nominations for Union Maids and Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists; her very first film, Growing Up Female, delved into the early Women’s Liberation Movement. 

Bognar, choosing a more intimate byway, explored his family, particularly his father, in the PBS documentary Personal Belongings, and then trained his lens on the final days of 35mm celluloid film projection at the Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs in the 2014 short Last Reel

The miraculous current festival run of American Factory offers proof that the pair are opening the eyes and hearts of audiences everywhere. After the film took Sundance by storm, I was able to catch up to it at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It’s next major stop will be at the 22nd Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, where Bognar and Reichert will be honored as 2019 Tribute Recipients and have several of their films screened alongside American Factory. Back in 2010, they curated Full Frame’s Thematic Program, “Chair-Making, Ship-Breaking, Pole-Dancing, Coal-Mining, Thread-Cutting, Cart-Pushing, Cane-Cutting, Chain-Forging: Films on Work & Labor,” which, as the title implies, celebrated “the labor movement, globalization and the connection between work and identity.”

To my mind, that is exactly what, in one film, Bognar and Reichert have achieved with American Factory. With epic intimacy, the movie walks among American workers eager for a second chance at gainful employment and the enrichment that comes from sustained livelihood as Chinese workers seek to maintain their own cultural traditions and work ethics while meaningfully engaging with their American compatriots in (and outside) the workplace. At the same time, it also captures the familiar situation of the new Chinese owner, a self-made patriarch with a huge ego but an innate ability to make canny choices capable of endearing himself to his employees. There is no mistaking that he should be seen as global representation of the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords of our past.

The filmmakers had the opportunity to journey with the American management team to China. This glimpse behind the cultural curtain sheds light on the perspective of Chinese workers and exposed some of the glaring differences that continue to challenge this joint effort.

What it also illustrated is a far bigger threat than culture. By the film’s end, the owner had to face the inevitability of technology. We should fear how the rise of American Factory sets the stage for The Matrix, looming on the horizon. 

Contact tt stern-enzi: [email protected]