American Factory 

Thursday, Apr. 4, 7:30 p.m.

The Carolina Theatre, Durham 

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar weren’t present when the last GM truck was built at the Moraine Assembly factory in Ohio, but you could be forgiven for thinking they were. Their Oscar-nominated film about the plant’s closure, The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Factory, captures the dramatic scene in detail: the welding of the steel frame, the placing of the windshield, the careful installation of the engine. As the vehicle floats down the line, factory workers sign the hood. 

Because they weren’t granted permission to film inside the factory, Reichert and Bognar gave flip cameras to factory workers, who smuggled them inside to get the shots. The film’s interviews mostly take place just outside the factory, in the parking lot, where workers sit in their vehicles, choking up over the loss of the factory, and the identity and community connected to it. 

Reichert and Bognar, the subjects of this year’s tribute program at Full Frame, have been making films together for several decades. Their large body of work about the American working class, which will be showcased across the four days of the festival, includes Reichert’s standout early film Union Maids (1976), an oral history of three female union organizers during the Great Depression; Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983), a look at the people who made up the mid-twentieth-century American Communist party; and Raises Not Roses, a work-in-progress about secretarial labor movements.

“When you study the history of working people, you learn, gosh, I mean, how do we get the weekend? How do we get the eight-hour day? How do we get the end of child labor?” Reichert says. “I want people to realize, ‘I’m not just some nobody from a small town. I have a role to play in our history as a working class.’”

Reichert and Bognar’s most recent film, American Factory (2019), headlines Full Frame’s opening night. It picks up in Moraine, where The Last Truck left off, with a Chinese billionaire purchasing the shuttered GM plant and converting it into a glass factory. The film, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, travels between Ohio and China as it examines the opportunities, challenges, and cultural clashes that come with the opening of a new factory. 

In 2010, Reichert and Bognar curated Full Frame’s thematic program, “Films on Work and Labor.” In an interview with the INDY that year, Bognar said that they shaped the program by thinking about what had changed the nature of work itself. 

“We asked ourselves a question, ‘What has impacted work—or labor the most—in the last hundred years?’ And we at least came up with two answers: One was the labor movement, and the other was globalization.”

Their home state of Ohio is the setting of many of their recent documentaries, including A Lion in the House (2006), which follows families struggling with pediatric cancer in Cincinnati. 

“One big reason we both stayed in Ohio is because our neighbors are high school teachers, nurses, and those who work at the Air Force,” Reichert says. “We live there because of the stories we have access to, and to be reminded of who we are creating these stories for.”

Even in the duo’s films that are not explicitly about labor, through lines about working-class identity emerge. In Personal Belongings (1996), Bognar documented the journey of his immigrant father from his suburban home in America, back to his home country of Hungary, where he fought in the Hungarian Revolution decades ago. It’s an intimate examination of the way that a revolutionary struggle can chafe against national identity, family, and purpose. 

“The gift of the documentary is that it’s like having dinner with someone who is really far away, and you have a four-hour dinner with them and dive deep into life and questions. You don’t get to do that every day,” Bognar says. “Film is so intimate and intense.” 

Bognar and Reichert have been working together since the eighties. Even when they don’t co-produce a film, they still look to each other for advice. 

“Steven has the magic eye,” Reichert says. “He will spend an hour getting a shot.”

“Julia is so brave,” Bognar says. “You know, someone has to be courageous when making a documentary, and it’s usually Julia. I’ve come to really trust her instinct for stories.” 

It’s this spirit of mutual trust that drives their collaboration, which celebrates working relationships, whether they are between doctors and patients in a pediatric oncology unit, between factory laborers, and between fathers and sons.