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Meet the Academy Award Nominees: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert--'The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant'

By Tom White

In the days leading up to the Oscar-cast, we at IDA will be introducing-and in some cases, re-introducing-our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to kick off this series of conversations, here are Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, directors /writers of The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which is nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category.


Synopsis: On Dec. 23, 2008, the General Motors assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio shut its doors. As a result, 2,200 workers and 200 management staff were left without jobs, while the closing is also sure to trigger the loss of thousands of related jobs and businesses. But the GM workers lost much more than jobs, including the pride they share in their work and the camaraderie built through the years. To the natives of Moraine and the greater Dayton area, General Motors wasn't just a car company--it was the lifeblood of the community. The Last Truck views the final months of the plant through the workers' eyes as they reflect on their work and consider their next steps. In interviews with people who considered themselves more family than co-workers, the film reveals the emotional toll of losing not just a job, but a sense of self

Photo: Russ Johnson

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Julia Reichert: As a woman, I wanted to smash the patriarchy.
Seriously, I came of age in the tumultuous 1960s, the beginning of the anti-war, Black Power and Women's Movements. I made my first film, Growing Up Female, out of a desire to bring ideas I was learning from the Women's Movement to a broader public. I did not "decide to be a filmmaker" so much as decide to use the tools of documentary to make social change. Much later, only after my third film (all co-directed with Jim Klein), Union Maids, did I start thinking of myself as a filmmaker.

Steven Bognar: I grew up on Monty Python and Star Wars, but one day, in my second year of college, I was sent to the reserve reading room in the library and assigned to look at a book of photographs by Robert Frank, called The Americans. That book changed my life, opening the door to understanding the poetry and sorrow and beauty of real life.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant?

JR and SB: We live in Dayton, Ohio, where the GM Plant in our film was located.  When we read the news in our local paper, the Dayton Daily News, that the plant was closing, we reacted with the same shock as everyone else in our hometown. This plant was such a huge employer--a bedrock business, a huge source of pride. We are citizens with cameras, and we thought we should get down to the plant to see if there was a story to tell, and how to tell it.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JR and SB: Auto workers in the USA have been slandered and maligned by the anti-union corporate media. They understandably don't have a lot of trust in people with cameras. They auditioned us for a while before beginning to trust us. One thing we did, which we have not done on earlier films, is we edited together about 40 minutes of scenes and nterviews from what we had already shot of the story, and showed it to a group of workers, on a laptop, in a bar right next to the plant. This was kind of scary, because you never know how people will react to seeing themselves, and the editing was still quite rough. But it went really well, and we think it helped build more trust between the workers and us.
Other obstacles included the fact that GM did not cooperate with us (though they were polite about it), and that the plant's security guards were constantly chasing us away, even though we were standing at the edge of public property and the plant's property. We had many discussions with the guards, some heated, some with local police, about the definition of public property.
Our crew was amazing and intrepid--we had a team of about 15 interviewers/sound recordists and camera people, covering the story from the four gates in and out of the huge factory (bigger than the US Pentagon), and in the local bars around the plant. The crew--some of them our family members, some former students--endured bitter cold in the last weeks of shooting: Some days were only 2 degrees for a high temp.
The very last day, the roads were very icy, and cars and trucks were sliding around right near where our crews were standing exposed. We had one near hit and realized we had to pull them out of harm's way.
Another obstacle was the fact that we were not allowed in the plant to film. This was really going to hurt the film if we couldn't see anything on the last days, inside the plant.  But then one of the workers had the idea of recording video on her cell phone. This gave us the idea to give some workers these small high-def Flip cameras. We did a brief training in how to shoot, and they started covering the last days of the plant. The camera work they did was outstanding, and they are credited in the film with the rest of the camera people.
Of course, with any documentary, the editing is always a profound hurdle. We had shot about 100 hours of material. Forging and finding the film from that material was the usual achingly hard process. Our great friend and consulting editor Jim Klein and the brilliant folks at HBO--Sheila Nevins, Lisa Heller and Geof Bartz, ACE--were all hugely helpful in this process.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JR and SB: We realized that the simpler and more focused it got, the stronger it got. At first we thought the film could cover a wide range of issues related to GM, our economic system, the realities of blue-collar, middle-class people, the brutal toll on the body of factory work, all kinds of things. In the editing, we realized that the best material, the beating heart of the story, was what the workers themselves experienced. That was also the freshest story, the one that had not been told.


IDA: As you've screened The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JR and SB: It has been very surprising to discover how moved people are to the story, the people. All audiences are in tears, whether they be white collar, living far from the Heartland, educated, have great jobs they love, security.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JR and SB: So many great films - Eyes on the Prize, Barbara Kopple's films, The Times of Harvey Milk, Night And Fog, Sorrow and the Pity, Jem Cohen's work--the list is way too long.


The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant will be screening Saturday, March 6 at 9:00 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDays LA, and Saturday, March 6, at 12:05 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDays NY.


For more information on DocuDays LA, click here.


For more information on DocuDays NY, click here.