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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar: The Indy interview

Posted by on Sun, Apr 11, 2010 at 1:37 PM

A scene from Ramin Bahranis Man Push Cart, shown at Full Frame as part of the curated series on work
  • Full Frame
  • A scene from Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart, shown at Full Frame as part of the curated series on work
Indy contributor olufunke moses wrote a piece discussing the curated series of work-related films at Full Frame. Her story, in which she interviewed the filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who programmed the 18 films seen this weekend, appears here.

Bognar and Reichert's most recent effort, the 40-minute-long The Last Truck, follows the closing of GM's assembly plant in Moraine, Ohio, and was shown as an invited film at this weekend's Full Frame fest. Bognar and Reichert's other work includes A Lion in the House, a three-and-a-half hour epic that followed five familes through six years of cancer treatment.

Following is a more or less complete transcript of our interview with the filmmakers.

Independent: In regards to the Labor Series that you curated for this year’s Full Frame Festival, how large was the pool of films you started with, before narrowing it down to the 18 films that are showing next month?

The pool was probably 3 times that big; they watched a lot of movies and asked a lot of people, Sadie [Tillery, Full Frame programming director] made suggestions, they asked friends who make and used films about labor, after a while had so many

Reichert: We literally were eating dinner in front of the monitors day after day . . .just to get them all in.

I know that your focus in curating this series, was to examine the human relationship to work. Was there a certain thread or thematic harmony that made these 18 films the one’s that you ended up selecting?

Reichert: There were three things: One was that we actually see the work that people do — that we get a feeling for the actual work; the other was that we see a connection between the work they do and their life . . . what was the third thing?

Bognar: Well, we asked ourselves a question, “What has impacted work — or labor the most — in the last 100 years?” And we at least came up with two answers: one was the labor movement and the other was globalization. that these two phenomena have changed or impacted people’s relationship to work throughout the world, the most. So we have tracks of our curating that include labor films and also tracks that try to ask the question “How is globalization impacting human beings around the world?"

What would you say is one of globalization’s biggest impacts on the world of labor?

Bognar: Well, I feel like it’s really been a profound challenge to the gains of the labor movement in the industrialized — previously industrialized — world. Over the last 100 years of so — the rights to an eight-hour workday, the rights to a guaranteed wage. a lot of rights were fought for — people died for to get these rights — and as the globalization of industry has spread, a lot of those rights have been undermined or gone around in countries where there’s no organized labor yet."

Reichert: The other thing that was very striking and we certainly see this in films like The Last Train Home, China Blue, Google Baby —you know, many films — is the impact of globalization on average people in—you know, really, the undermining of their culture — of culture in many countries., that we would perhaps call “Third World countries.” Where there’s been this vast transformation, which societies are barely keeping up with.

Last Train Home
  • Full Frame
  • Last Train Home

You see in Last Train Home, that families are literally ripped apart by globalization. by the fact that there are 150 million people working in factories so far from their homes that they can [only] go home a week per year. You see women in India in Google Baby who are basically outsourced, their bodies are outsourced, where they don't have contact with their families much over a period of time.

You know, just these really huge shifts in cultures all over the world by the globalization of capital and manufacturing. So that’s the other side of it; there’s our side and there’s their side and its becoming very unstable in both places.

How did you come to tell the story of the Moraine Assembly Plant autoworkers?

Bognar: Well, we live right near the plant, here in Dayton, Ohio and when the news hit — when the news was announced that the plant [would] close, we just thought that we had to respond somehow. We actually didn’t know if there would be a film there, but we went down with our cameras. We sort of think of ourselves as citizens with cameras and that's something we could do. And after a few months of filming and getting to know people, we really began to feel that there was an actual documentary there and we really focused much more on documenting the countdown to plant closing — in hopes that we could bear witness to — you know, we think of our job a lot as bearing witness to events or circumstances and [we] just felt like this was something we could do.

Hey, we should mention that the Last Truck — and two other films that Julie mentioned: the Last Train Home and Google Baby, those technically — those three films are not in our series. But they are all showing at FF this year.

We are so happy that they’re showing Google Baby and The Last Train Home, those are two remarkable films that are part of the festival, yet they also address or connect to the issues we’re trying to explore in this series. So it’s as if our series got a little bigger.

What is your definition of work? Does it differ from your definition of a job?

Bognar: I would say work is what you do for . . . see, there’s your job and there’s work. I would say a job is what you do to support yourself and your family — it may be something you like or not. Your work — your real work — is something you crave doing. So if your job is you work at a restaurant, but your work is you play the piano, then that’s your real work, to become a good piano player.

Reichert: A lot of times — you raised this question of identity — and a lot of times, people will say “I’m a chairmaker,” “I’m a coal miner” you know, “I’m a filmmaker.” “I’m a banker” and that’s how they describe themselves. I could say “I make films” or can say, “I’m a filmmaker.”

In the essay we talk about this a little bit, if your job is let’s say a stripper or your job is as a factory worker, would you say “I’m a stripper”? or “I’m a factory worker”? Or would you say “I’m a dad” or, you know, “I live in Ohio.”

Bognar: That’s a really interesting point, and I wonder too, in speaking about the difference between work and a job, if your work is a writer, and your job is, I don’t know, a cook, as a writer, would you say “I’m a writer” and as a cook, would you say “I cook?’ You know—“I am” for the work and “I do” for the cook?

Reichert: Right. And at what point, if you’re something like a writer or a filmmaker, do you feel confident to say, “That’s what I do?” At the point you’ve been paid for it? You’ve been paid for it once? . . . Where if you have a job and you’re hired, you know, you’re an IT person, or your a professor, it’s a fluid, it’s an interesting thing to look at — at what point do you really identify with your work. If it’s something you’re proud of? If it’s something you’re paid for?

When did the question, "What do you do?"— especially in the Western world — begin to define who we are, more than other aspects of our life?

Reichert: I don’t know if that's because, that's just culturally how it’s come down, that we tend to be defined by our role in society — you know, I’m a teacher, I’m a nurse, I’m a fireman I’m a policeman — as opposed to, I’m a mom or a dad, I’m a citizen of this town or whatever. If it’s because culturally or because we identify with what we spend the most time doing — is that it?

Bognar: Or is it because the United States is so — how do you say it — capitalism has clutched at the throat of the United States for so long?

Reichert: I think there’s status involved. I suppose there would be more status involved with saying “I’m a teacher,” than “I’m a mom.” I think status is certainly part of it. If you have a low-status job, are you less likely to identify with that? I would think so. Or a low-pay job or a job you don’t spend eight to 10 hours a day doing.

You know, it’s an interesting question. I think you’d almost need a survey to find out.

From the films that you’ve seen in this series, how would you say our work shapes our identities?

Reichert: Well of course,John & Jane is an amazing example of that. That’s kind of confounding, actually. Because those are folks who work in — I wouldn’t say a high-wage job or a high-status job, at least it wouldn’t be here, working in a call center. But here are folks, young folks mostly, who’ve come to identify with the world they’re calling in to which is thousands of miles away, but they really want to be — and feel better being — part of that world. Why is that? I guess the impression you get from the film is that their actual real circumstances — where they live, you know, the home that they live in . . . compared to probably many of the Americans they’re talking with [on the phone] they would be in you know, mean circumstances, you know, low circumstances. so they wanna be identified with something they would perceive as better.

It’s kinda confounding though because there are many things about their culture we would think would be enviable.

Bognar: In John & Jane, the most discomforting thing — for me at least — was near the end, the folks have identified with their fake job identities so much, that they, in ways, seem to be adopting that. And...
It’s fascinating. There are jobs that require you to create a persona. no one expects a coal-miner to all nice and cheerful when they’re digging coal. . .

[Bognar signs off the telephone. Reichert continues the interview.]

The Last Truck
  • Full Frame
  • The Last Truck

What occurred to me, over and over, as I watched The Last Truck, is how deeply work can get woven into our national identity — for example, the sense of national responsibility the autoworkers had as they assembled vehicles or the numerous flags that hung throughout the community. Would you say that pride in one’s work can become a measure of one’s patriotism, and is this something unique to the United States?

The autoworkers, literally, there were times when they worked 10 to 12 hours a day six days a week — sometimes even more. . . And then there’s the family — the fact that they do look at themselves as a family, which is partly a product of the organization of their work that there on an assembly line where they each depend on each other all also a product of the hours they spend with each other. You know [they’re] only given a 26-minute lunch and they get two 10-minute breaks other than that. So they are literally side-by-side their entire shift. So that shapes your work. . . They do have a great deal of pride in the fact that they produce the vehicles that people drive their kids around in. So I don’t know how that compares to other [jobs/trades] . . . there a lot of factors that influence how your identity is locked in with your job.

Something we always hear—we lived in Europe a couple of times—it was always striking to me that people did not work the long hours; did not go home and work on Saturday — or Sunday —the way we do here [in America]. . . I don’t know if it’s the work ethic or more the balance of life, but I think, in general, what I seen, living in Europe is there’s more of a balance. People don't feel that what their supposed to do is devote their entire life to their work. And that's expected here — in many, many jobs... you’re really gonna lay down your life for your job — for your profession, let’s say.

Continuing with this theme of work and national identity, in watching John & Jane, where the call center employees had to suppress elements of their own Indian identity to take on that of another, and contrasting that with The Last Truck, what struck me was the phrase: "Made in America."

On one hand, there’s a very real anger from Americans who resent their work — the very fabric of what makes them American — being shipped overseas; on the other hand, in countries where work is outsourced, there’s a resentment that comes from being made to take on an identity and buy into a dream, that’s not your reality.

My question: How does one’s perception of self and country, influence the value that you bring to your work?

I think the workers in India are probably not aware of how much the American Dream doesn’t exist anymore, or is being taken away from the average person who aspired to it. who really built the country through their work in all kinds of manufacturing services employment. [These Americans] sort of had a sense of the American Dream—if you work hard, if you play by the rules, you are diligent, and hardworking, you can have a house — you can have a nice house — you can have a car, your kids can go to college, you can have vacations — that’s the american dream. and all those autoworkers had that. Um, they don’t have it anymore, you know, and I think the John & Jane folks who loved their jobs, who really aspired to be American, to me it was very sad and ironic that they didn’t seem to realize how much that is decaying or crumbling here in the United States. And it’s partly crumbling because of what they do. its partly crumbling because so many of these jobs that were decent paying jobs are going elsewhere.

John & Jane
  • Full Frame
  • John & Jane

I mean, eventually, one would hope — and we write about this in the essay — that we’re going through a period of painful, global readjustment and eventually, everyone will be paid enough to live on everywhere, but I hope that happens. The idea that maybe one big union, which was the original idea back in The Wobblies days — which is the first film we’re showing, cause it’s kind of the foundation — maybe that will eventually come true. I think that would be a good thing if workers all around the world could support themselves through their labor.

But certainly American workers — blue collar middle class people — are just losing ground extremely fast here because of globalization — at least in part.

What did the Moraine autoworkers teach you most, about humans and their relationship to work?

Well, I was surprised by the pride they felt in their work. That broke a myth for me, that factory workers just put in their time and go home. and . . . it may be a deadbeat job, but they’re very proud of what they do. I guess the other thing, I — I guess a lot of people in my generation — studied Marx in college and came to see that a lot of things the Marxists had to say were true. And the kind of solidarity and friendship and family and looking out for each other and racial harmony — I should have put that first because that was very surprising — that existed in that plant, has to do with the actual conditions of their work, the fact of the assembly line — right, the fact that what somebody does just before you influences you and then you influence what happens after you. if you screw up, you’re gonna screw up the person next to you, or down the line from you.

So that organization of work, which Marx talks about, is what gives people class consciousness and a sense of solidarity — that’s true. That’s true. And the whole American individualism kinda counters against that, you know the idea that we’re all just for ourselves, that was not really the feeling you got in that plant. People protected each other, cared about each other, looked out for each other. . . The idea of solidarity, I found that that was alive and well in that plant and that was part of what it meant to work there. And I guess I bring that up because there's so much in our culture and I think in a very negative way, that's about individualism. and the folks in that plant really operated out of a much more shared sense of who they are and they had a sense of solidarity which was very inspiring to me.

What, to you, is the meaning of a job well done?

Well to me, I’m speaking as a person who makes films. . . To me a job well done is when your film is as good as you can possibly make it in every way. and that means, you don’t say, "It’s good enough. It could be a little better, I could take another week, but I’m not going to do it because I’m done, I’m tired of it.” or “Well, we could find better music, but we’re not gonna do it.” or “We could trim it a little bit and make it move along better, but we’ve been paid, you know, we’ve expired our budget and we’re not gonna put in that extra effort.”

You know we don’t do that. To me, and this is what I tell my friends, too: The film has to be the best that you can possibly make it. Until you’ve gotten to that point, you have not finished your film.

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A more or less complete transcript of olufunke moses' interview with the Full Frame filmmakers.

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