Posts Tagged ‘Megan Cunningham’

“Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change. Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release.”
Barack Obama

Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar won an Oscar Sunday night for their documentary American Factory, which they shot in—what I consider an unlikely place to lead them to Hollywood success—a factory in Moraine/Dayton, Ohio.

Both my grandmother and grandfather worked for NCR in Dayton, Ohio (where I was also born), and I had a great aunt who was a nurse at a GM factory there. In northeast Ohio, my paternal grandfather spent 30 years working for Youngstown Sheet and Tube. And I worked in a boat windshield factory in Florida one summer while in college. So while factories and Ohio may not get your heart pumping, that combination has a special place in my heart.

And obviously for Reichert and Bognar as well, as they also made the  documentary The Last Truck :Closing of a GM Plant.  A film nominated for an Oscar in 2009.

In the spirit of finding stories in your own back yard, Reichert and Bognar live in Yellow Springs, Ohio, just east of Dayton. Reichert went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs and has been nominated for an Oscar four times.

At the age of 73, and diagnosed with terminal cancer, it must have been fulfilling for Reichert to stand on the world stage and receive her first Oscar award.

Of course, it’s hard to miss that in Reichert’s acceptance speech that she’s probably the first person in Oscar history to both give a “Go Buckeyes” shoutout and quote Karl Marx. That will bring her friends and foes on both sides.

I’ve yet to see American Factory (which is currently on Netflix), so I don’t know if the filmmakers take a prescriptive, descriptive, subjective or objective  filmmaking approach to a Chinese billionaire bringing his car glass manufacturing plant in Ohio.

But she did say this on a recent interview:

“Some workers feel like the American dream is done. We are never going to get that back. And others say, you know you really have to believe in the American dream. And I think it’s really up for grabs. Is there an American dream still? Is there something that people can if they work hard and stick to the laws that they’re going to have a good life. Is that possible anymore? I think that’s a real question that I hope our film sort of raises. Is this the world we want to live in?”
Julia Reichert
Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

These are the questions, that in some ways, philosophy, religion, and politics have wrestled with for the past 200 years, and if you remove the American dream aspect, probably since the beginning of time. Long before capitalism, communism, socialism, and Make America Great Again were being debated.

It does feel like we are in a significant global transition period. If you watch 4-time Oscar winner Parasite (2019), it’s not hard to make the connection between daily financial struggles in Korea and those in Ohio. It’s also not hard to watch the documentary One Child Nation (2019), read current news about the spread of the deadly coronavirus, or track tariffs in China and realize how interconnected the world is these days.

Hat tip to Megan Cunningham for putting Julia Reichert on my radar. Cunningham wrote the book The Art of Documentary that I first read in 2006, and I’ve had the opportunity to produce and shoot projects with her company Magnet Media Films. In a LinkedIn post yesterday, Cunningham said Richert was a recipient of the 2016 Chicken and Egg Award . (The Chicken and Egg Award recognizes and elevates five female non-fiction directors each year with $50,000 unrestricted grants.)

Reichert wrote a book called Doing it yourself: A handbook on independent distribution that was published in 1977, and I’m not sure where you can find a copy.

P.S. From the back to the future file:  Watch the trailer to the 1986 film Gung Ho to see how an early Ron Howard film dealt with cultural differences as a Japanese company acquires a car manufacturer in western Pennsylvania.

Scott W. Smith 



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“The American dream is raising way up above what you started with…”
From the promo trailer The Queen of Versailles

You know, it’s common to think that the great stories to be found are out there somewhere —”out there,” places far from where we live.

I remember taking a photography class my first year of college in Central Florida and a teacher asking a student where his assignment was and the student said he hadn’t done it yet but he was going up to St. Augustine that weekend and was going to get some great shots there. You could understand his theory. A good deal of the Orlando area in the 80s was a balance of strip malls and strip clubs, sprawling suburban subdivisions and mobile home parks, Sea World and Disney World, while St. Augustine was a historic European-like waterfront city that was centuries old with a mix of architecture from the countries where seven flags have flow over the years.

But the photography teacher went into this diatribe about how you didn’t take interesting photographs just because you went to an interesting place. He talked about the fine art photographer Jerry Uelsman and others who made the common uncommon. He then gave us an assignment to photograph only in and around our homes. It obviously had an impact on me to remember it all these decades later.  And he was right, there are things in your own backyard that are worth exploring.

And while he was talking about our literal backyards, from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective I’d like to expand that backyard to mean the general vicinity of where you live. That worked for Faulkner, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty and hundreds of other writers who’ve told stories from unlikely places.

I was reminded of all of this back in January when the documentary The Queen of Versailles made a splash at Sundance. The film’s director, Lauren Greenfield, picked up Best Director of a Feature Film–Documentary Competition at Sundance. And she did it with a film that was shot in my former backyard so to speak in Central Florida. The film centers around David & Jackie Siegal and the 90,000 square foot home they were building in the Orlando area. No typo there, 90,000 square feet.

I remember living in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park when Orlando Magic basketball player Horace Grant was building a massive 20,000 square foot home. But as I would drive by it every couple of days while it was being built, I never once thought, “I bet that would make an interesting documentary.” Maybe it would have and maybe it wouldn’t have, but the point I’m making here is to have your story antenna up. That’s what took Errol Morris did for his first documentary,

“In 1978 [Morris] was inspired to direct his first nonfiction feature after discovering a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa.’ The resulting documentary, Gates of Heaven, follows the surreal startup story of two entrepreneurs—through the launch of two competing pet cemeteries—and makes for an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”
Megan Cunningham
The Art of the Documentary 

From the trailer I’ve seen of The Queen of Versailles—which will be released in theaters next week— it looks as if it too is, “an entertaining, rich, and wry commentary on American culture and capitalism.”

P.S. A couple of weeks ago I got to meet Megan Cunningham when I was in New York City for a shoot. She heads up Magnet Media who I’ve done some field producing and shooting for in the past year. Check out her book, The Art of the Documentary, which has wonderful interviews with Ken Burns, D A Pennenaker, Albert Maysles and others.

Scott W. Smith

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