Locals who attended the Lighthouse International Film Festival on LBI last summer may recall the screening of “American Factory,” directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, and produced by Jeff Reichert and Julie Parker Benello. The documentary feature premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is the first film picked up by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground.
The film has received countless accolades, most notably a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards, which will be held on Feb. 9.
The film was also nominated for the Independent Spirit Award and the BAFTA, both for Best Documentary. The film has already won numerous awards, including the Gotham Award for Best Documentary, the IDA Award for Best Director, the Cinema Eye Honors Awards for Best Director and Best Film, and the DGA Award for Best Documentary.
“American Factory” peers into the Fuyao factory in Dayton, Ohio, which occupies a former General Motors plant, as well as Fuyao’s sister factory, in China. The film gives its audience an honest look into the lives of factory employees, presenting the story from their perspective.
“We go with Americans back to the factory in China,” Reichert said. “We wanted to make a movie that showed a broader lens of what it’s like, using two different perspectives.”
He explained, “Back in 2008, Julia and Steve documented the closing of that plant in the economic downturn in a short film called ‘The Last Truck.’ That film was also nominated for best documentary short Oscar.”
“American Factory” picks up where that short left off, Reichert explained, and continues to follow the story as the Ohio factory is purchased by a Chinese billionaire who converts the plant into Fuyao Glass. “‘American Factory’ is a kind of spiritual sequel to ‘The Last Truck,’” he said.
“This film is about working people and the struggles working people face,” Reichert said. He elaborated, any working American can relate to the folks in this cross-cultural factory.
“Julia and Steve have been making films about working people for decades. For us, this is a continuation,” he affirmed. “Before, the work was looking at the American working class. But this is a worldwide story.” He shared with gratitude how Higher Ground has been “absolutely instrumental in making people aware of this movie.”
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar sat for a short conversation with the Obamas, in a video hosted by Netflix, and received high praise. Barack Obama explained the motivation behind Higher Ground.
“We want to be in relationships with people and work together with them. You have to know their story. You have to know them.”
Julia replied with a smile, “That’s exactly what we do.”
“We want to give voice to people who don’t appear on-screen,” said Bognar. “Working people, their stories, their struggles, their hopes … are equally as compelling as superheroes.”
“Higher Ground is a reflection of both of us,” Michelle Obama shared. “Our platform is going to look a little bit like everything. Just like the world is a little bit of everything.”
Barack Obama added, “We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand, which is what a good story does. It helps all of us feel some sort of solidarity with each other.”
Reichert grew up in Northfield and has spent much of his life in the LBI region. His mother, Marsha Reichert, operates the Lizzie Rose Music Room, a nonprofit music venue in Tuckerton. Both of his parents ran the Little Art Theatre in Little Egg Harbor and were involved in the Atlantic Film Society.
“My first job was selling tickets there on the weekends,” said Reichert. “Then I worked at Tilton Theatre as an usher. Cinema runs fairly deep in our family.”
His aunt and collaborator, Julia Reichert, has been making films for upward of 50 years.
Naturally, Jeff studied film, and he began making his own films in 2008. He has directed four features and a number of shorts since 2010. LBI best remembers him for his film “This Time Next Year,” co-directed with Farihah Zaman, which documents the resilience of the LBI community following Supertorm Sandy.
“I love showing at LIFF,” Reichert shared. “I’ve shown every film back to my very first one, ‘Gerrymandering.’ It’s a super-cool festival and audience.”
Too anxious to watch the Jan. 13 Academy Award nominations, Reichert and his girlfriend went for a run minutes before the live broadcast. About 15 minutes into the run, he received a plethora of congratulatory text messages, which hit him with a wave of relief followed by a wave of excitement.
“The nomination feels like eons ago, given everything that’s happened since,” he said.
A nomination of such high esteem is followed by a whirlwind of additional nominations and events leading up to the Oscars. Having spent the last three weeks traveling all over the world, Reichert shared about his multitude of experiences.
As he described, many events begin with a seated dinner, followed by a show. The shows “vary from being highly produced to very informal.” And of course, there’s no other party like an afterparty, which he said makes for long evenings. He explained, “Our team has been told by many filmmakers who have run the gauntlet before that the key is to watch your alcohol consumption.”
Despite the bustle of buzzing about, Reichert intends to make the most of every moment. In addition to attending the various events, his free time is dedicated to experiencing the cities he’s visiting.
“I’m currently in London for the BAFTAs with my girlfriend, and we’ve got events every evening, so we’re trying to pack in as much sightseeing during the day as we can.”
The ceremonies themselves have painted myriad social scenes, each one unique.
“I went with our editor to the ‘Eddie’ awards, where she was nominated for her work on ‘American Factory,’ and found that crowd of post-production folks to be much wilder than you might expect.” He continued, “The Gotham Award room was full of former colleagues from back when I used to work in New York indie film distribution. The PGA awards were very glitzy. The Cinema Eye awards (voted on by the documentary community) are scrappier and loose – it really felt like a family affair.”
Contrarily, Reichert’s experience with the Academy was one of grandeur.
“The Academy luncheon on Jan. 27 was a big event that really brought the weight of Oscar history home,” he shared. “They call each nominee to the stage one by one for the ‘class photo,’ and it was very surreal to look one person over and see Laura Dern or Noah Baumbach standing there chatting with a sound mixer or costume designer or the director of a short film.”
Finally, the prestigious nomination earned Reichert and his team a seat beside some of his biggest inspirations.
“At the Academy luncheon I managed to speak with Brad Pitt for a few moments about a film I love dearly that he produced and starred in, ‘The Tree of Life,’” he explained. Moreover, he said, beaming, “seeing ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a teenager at the Towne 16 was a formative movie-watching experience for me, and I had the opportunity to tell that to Quentin Tarantino.”
“American Factory” has clearly been influential, as some film stars took it upon themselves to approach Reichert and his team to commend their efforts.
“While we were waiting to enter the lunch, Laura Dern came up to us to introduce herself and tell us her thoughts on ‘American Factory,’” he shared.
Glamour aside, the success of “American Factory” was garnered through the authenticity of the people in the film, and Reichert keeps that in mind.
“Having the opportunity to meet so many other people I’ve admired and who have made films that have been important to me has been truly wonderful,” he said. “But I think the two most fascinating people I’ve had the chance to spend time with as a result of ‘American Factory’ are subjects of the film: He Wong, who works in the factory in Dayton, and Chairman Cao, the owner of Fuyao. Spending time with them and learning about China from two very different perspectives and hearing their thoughts about America was world-expanding.”
As far as rewards go, he said, “To make a film and have it recognized in this way is special.” And while he emphasizes his excitement, he remembers, “The most important thing is we got this done through a process that keeps the integrity.”
The nomination means more people will find their way to the film, which is paramount. The real working people are what make the film. As Reichert said proudly, “We made a movie that will take you into the world of the factory, not only because it looks great, sounds great and has a lot of comedy and drama, but because it shows people you are just going to fall in love with and be fascinated with.”
“American Factory” is streaming on Netflix, and has also been released by the Criterion Collection on DVD.