The filmmakers behind “American Factory” — acquired at Sundance by the Obamas’ nascent production company — told reporters backstage at the Oscars that they hoped the film would generate empathy for workers, in America and beyond.
Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s film tells the story of a Chinese billionaire who reopens an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio to manufacture auto glass for Fuyao.
“What we saw in the plant was that working people, like the blue-collar folks, whether they were Chinese or American … found ways to get along … to discover each other,” Reichert said backstage at the Dolby Theatre Sunday night after winning the Oscar for documentary feature. “It was like a honeymoon period … then when the pressure of profit came … then there began much more tension.”
The Netflix doc was one of the first projects taken on by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.
“I hope our film makes you see two things … workers around the world are definitely getting pushed down,” Reichert said. “(And) we can be fair to each other.”
If people can share their stories, “you sit in the shoes of the other and (then) there is no other,” the director said.
Her co-director said the pair started out without worrying about where the money for the film would come from.
“When we started making `American Factory,’ we didn’t think about financing because we have a car, we have a camera and we live 25 minutes from the factory,” Bognar said. “We filmed for a year and a half before we even thought about money.”
Financing from Participant Media became important when the team decided to go to China and broaden the scope of their story.
Bognar and Reichert, who shared the win with producer Jeff Reichert, said they hadn’t yet spoken to the Obamas, but thought it was “safe to say they probably heard the news.”
One of the co-producers, Mijie Li, and the factory chairman had planned to fly from China to the Oscar ceremony, but were unable to travel because of the ban related to the coronavirus, Bognar said.
The director said the team was disappointed, but acknowledged “that inconvenience palls” next to the suffering in China.
“Our hearts go out to the people who are dealing with this very, very deadly virus,” Bognar said.
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