For the co-director of “American Factory,” an Oscar caps a half-century of advocacy filmmaking.
Sen. Sherrod Brown admits he never watched the Academy Awards all the way through until this year. That’s when Ohio filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar won an Oscar for “American Factory,” their documentary about the transformation of a former General Motors plant near Dayton into a Chinese-run glass factory.
Brown is speaking at the Wexner Center’s Mershon Auditorium just nine days after the awards show in February. Onstage are the 73-year-old Reichert, looking chipper despite ongoing treatment for cancer, and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who’s just won a prestigious award of her own from the Gordon Parks Foundation. “I wish we could say we were responsible for all that timing,” says Wexner director Johanna Burton.
In fact, this Lambert Family Lecture has been planned for months as a way of bringing together two artists whose efforts to promote blue-collar concerns have been on display at the Wex. A retrospective of Reichert’s 50-year career was shown there last fall, and Frazier’s The Last Cruze, a photographic exhibition that documents the 2018 closing of GM’s Lordstown plant, was featured through April 26.
As for Brown, he’s moderating the event due to his well-known pro-labor sentiments, which were front and center during what Burton calls his “amazing cameo” in “American Factory.” While speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for the repurposed Moraine glass plant, Brown recommended unionizing its workforce, causing an incensed Fuyao company vice president to call for lopping off his head with a pair of oversized scissors.
Factory workers and executives expressed similarly incendiary sentiments throughout the film, and on the Mershon stage, Brown asks the question on everyone’s mind: How did Reichert and Bognar gain so much access? Reichert credits Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang’s belief in transparency. He promised them access, and he kept on allowing it even after conflicts arose over the United Auto Workers’ attempt to unionize employees, who were making far less than they would have under GM. “He was good to his word,” Reichert says approvingly. The resulting Oscar, her first in four nominations, provides added luster to a career dedicated to such causes.***
Reichert broke into filmmaking in 1971 with the feminist documentary “Growing Up Female,” co-directed with then-partner James Klein. Later, influenced by her working-class roots, she branched out into proletarian issues. Both themes are present in Reichert and Bognar’s latest film, “9 to 5: The Story of a Movement,” which they completed just in time to show at Austin’s South by Southwest festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival, both of which were later canceled due to coronavirus concerns. “We really wanted to finish that film so that I would have it done while I’m still alive,” she says.
Reichert is speaking from her home in Yellow Springs, where she and Bognar have just returned from one of several promotional trips for “American Factory.” “Since the Oscars, I think we’ve been here 48 hours,” she says.
It’s been a busy and exciting year for the couple, who fell in love after meeting at a long-ago film event in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, it’s also been a grueling year for Reichert, who is battling a rare disease known as ureteral cancer. She actually fought and defeated cancer once before—ironically, right after she and Bognar completed 2006’s “A Lion in the House,” which dealt with childhood cancer—but she knows she won’t survive this bout. “Who knows if I have six months or a year or two years?” she says. “We just don’t know.”
As a result of the uncertainty, Reichert says their next project is simply “to see our grandkids, to plant a garden, just have a normal life here.” But they also want to make sure “9 to 5” finds “use”—her word for efficacy—in the women’s and labor movements. “That’s a big part of why we do what we do, is to support activists who are trying to make a difference in their community or in the world,” Reichert explains. “Every single one of [our] films had use.”
A day or so later, as if to prove her point, the National Labor Relations Board reveals that it’s investigating Fuyao due to “American Factory” footage that shows company officials planning to fire workers in retaliation for pro-union efforts—a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
In other words, the documentary has had “use.” For Reichert, that’s probably worth a dozen Oscars.***
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.