Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar were nominated for an Oscar for their 2009 documentary, "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant". Their 2007 documentary, "A Lion In The House", won a Primetime Emmy and was nominated for an award at the Sundance Film Festival as well as an Independent Spirit Award. This past semester, the pair taught a Film & Video Production I course as well as the Social Documentary course at American University.
Julia & Steve graciously agreed to sit down with us to tell us why they decided to become filmmakers, stories about their own personal highlights from their filmmaking careers, and what their advice would be to beginning social issue documentary filmmakers.
Why did you decide to become filmmakers?
Julia: I came of age in the late 60’s - I was very lucky to be in college at that time. There was a lot of emphasis on: How do we change the world? How do we end racial discrimination? How do we end the war in Vietnam? How do we tackle the discrimination and second class status of women? One after another these things came up. And at that time I think as young people we felt like we had to do things in a completely new way and in whatever field you were in, whether it was something with science or something with journalism or whatever.
So I had already from a young age been interested in photography and I got involved with the radio station at my college, which was Antioch College, and looking as a young person at the possibilities for expression in photography or radio or journalism or whatever, there were no women on newspapers. I had a job on one and I could see that, there were no women on television, there were no women working in theaters – there were just no women in any of those places, so what do you do? You’re gonna create an alternative. That’s kind of your only choice, particularly if you want to critique all those institutions, so to me, I’d just say I was a child of the 60s and I was very lucky to be that and I was drawn to the visual and oral media. My first film was my senior project at Antioch, which turned out to be Growing Up Female, and which turned out to be kind of a highly used classic of the women’s movement. So really it was social change, and using that particular interest that I had. that drew me to making films and I will just parenthetically say that the whole aesthetic stuff about film was not something I knew anything about or I learned much about - that was later as a result of meeting other filmmakers and as a result of things like the Robert Flaherty seminar, I have to give way props to them for being like a graduate school for me, going year after year and meeting people like Bill Viola, Nam June Paik Emile de Antonio, I could name so many who totally broadened out my ideas.
Steve: I’m a child of Star Wars and the Beatles and Monty Python and I thought I wanted to make those kinds of movies. A huge turning point for me was a book of photographs by Robert Frank called The Americans, and I think that kind of kicked the door open for me to understand that real stories, like people’s actual lives, had poetry and urgency and power and that we need to get out there, we all need to investigate each other’s worlds to make things better.
I was raised a devout Catholic boy so I had this sense of social agenda and then I became an atheist at 17 but then in my 20s I realized that just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean – you still have a responsibility to the world and to humanity and writers like Camus had a big influence on me in that regard. I’d say several big influences on me in that regard include, well first off, Julia, her sense of righteousness has been really important to me, that you need to tell really true and powerful stories, Antioch College was a great institution I started spending a lot of time around and I eventually taught there briefly and I have many friends who’ve graduated from there and their motto is “be ashamed do die before you have won some victory for humanity”. And every graduate hears that and is like “holy shit. What do I do with that?” Not “go and have a good time and be a good alumni and give money”, it’s really pretty fierce, and I’ve adopted a lot of that kind of thinking.
In terms of growth as a filmmaker, I gotta give a lot of credit to the Wechsner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio which is near where we live, where we have literally gone for its entire existence to see filmmakers and meet filmmakers and that’s where filmmakers like Jem Cohen, or Jim Mckay or Sue Friedrich or Yvonne Welben, a lot of filmmakers who I really admire have been there and have been great influences, so that’s been an ongoing source of inspiration and learning for me.
Julia: Let me just throw in that I saw films that opened my eyes in such a big way and I think that’s why I decided on film: one was Night & Fog which made me realize there was a Holocaust and what it looked like, one was Harvest of Shame which I saw actually in my last year of high school, Edward R. Murrow, on Thanksgiving night, and who knew that existed, the migrant situation, and the other one early in college was Titticut Follies. That’s one reason with students a lot of times I just say “just go see these films, just get out there and just see films” because you’re gonna learn so much from just that. We don’t need to read books about it,we don’t need to have theories about it, just see them and experience them because that was my teaching. So those were films that had a huge impact on me and I realized that you could change people’s awareness through movies
Steve: I would say Fred Wisemans’ films Titticut Follies and High School were both influential on me, how harrowing and raw Titticut Follies was and how utterly close to the bone High School felt – watching High School, which was shot in 67, it felt like my high school even though it was thousands of miles away and over 15 years later - that kind of “oh wow, you can actually show what life is like for different people”.
Julia: And all those people I mentioned are all male filmmakers because that’s all there were. The women’s movement of all the movements had the most impact on me personally in terms of my work and my consciousness and the belief that we could pick up a camera, we could learn this stuff even though there was nobody there to teach us – in some ways that was good, you make it your own, nobody says ‘this is the way to do it’ it’s more like, ‘well, let’s try it’.
Can you give us some highlights from your filmmaking careers?
Steve: We’re so lucky to have so many moments with people in intimate situations, you feel utterly privileged and scared to be there because it’s the heart of humanity, someone who might be saying goodbye to someone they love who they may never see again, that person may be dying, to be in the presence of that and to see love like that --
Julia: -- and to know that your job is to witness and to show to thousands of people --
Steve: -- and to do a good job doing it – that’s when you feel the responsibility and the possibility of documentary at its heart, I feel. We made a film about kids fighting cancer, so that’s put us in those kinds of situations again and again and again and that was very, very shaping and profound.
Julia: Well I think a recent one was the actual last day of work at the GM plant, the Moraine assembly truck plant --
Steve: -- we were documenting the closing of this factory --
Julia: -- and the actual last day, when people literally were leaving for the last time - even though they were preparing and they knew it was going to happen, the amount of emotion, the amount of tears, the amount of wrenching stories, the amount of people hugging, holding on to each other, the amount of emotion about losing that community…I’ll just never forget that. There’s even so many moments during that day: sometimes people would just roll down their windows and talk to us, or we’d go to the bar and people would just burst into tears and it was so real for us; it wasn’t some reality TV moment, it was very real and we had spent six months getting ready for that moment. If we had just walked in, none of that would have happened
Steve: That’s where you feel again like what you’re doing could bring real people’s lives to the rest of the world and share – we should know what our fellow human beings go through, bottom line, point of fact. We should know it, and if we know it, we might care a little bit.
Julia: There’s so many things though, like when we showed Growing Up Female at the Flaherty Film Seminar and we drove from Ohio in our beat-up car and we’d never met another filmmaker except the person who taught us for three months and then died, me and my partner Jim, and getting there and there’s a 120 filmmakers there and just showing it there and having Willard van dyke and Jim ruby and all these people giving us feedback - that was amazing. And another showing, I have to say, you know the Castro Theater in San Francisco, it’s a big theater – anyway, we had our world premiere of the film “Seeing Red” at the Castro theater and it was totally sold out and nobody had seen the film, really, and it’s a film about American communists and we didn’t really know what the reaction would be because it’s trying to really understand their perspective, it’s not pro-communist or anti-communist but the people come across as really interesting, powerful people and at the end my heart was just beating – “Would the audience just be quiet? Or would people get up and leave? What was gonna happen?” And I wore high heels, I can’t believe I wore high heels and a skirt – I still have those heels too – and the audience just like, burst to their feet and started clapping and people were crying and all that…I almost fell over from the sound and the reaction. I feel like my life changed in that moment, it became something that people really responded to and we just didn’t know until that point.
Steve: And I’d say your earlier film, Union Maids, I’ve heard this story a few times…so Union Maids is like, the lowest budget movie ever to be nominated for an Oscar --
Julia: -- probably, at that point --
Steve: -- a feature documentary, and it probably cost like 12,000 --
Julia: -- oh, less --
Steve: -- and so when they finished it (it’s a black and white documentary about three women and basically they talk and it’s archival footage). The story is that Julia and Jim felt so bad about it --
Julia: -- we looked at the print the night before the screening --
Steve: -- and they were like “What did we make? It’s a mess!”
Julia: “This is horrible, it’s terrible,” and all these people were coming to see it --
Steve: -- and they had a premiere at the time in the biggest theater in Dayton, Ohio where they were living, and they were like “this is a disaster, what did we do” and all these people fill the theater and it happens that Pete Seeger is playing a concert the next night or that night and he comes to the movie --
Julia: -- the people in the film were there –
Steve: -- and they just wanted to slink away –
Julia: -- well, actually, we went to bed with our clothes on, we were so depressed we didn’t even take our clothes off. We just laid in bed like “Oh no”. I didn’t tell you that part.
Steve: Anyway, then the movie plays, it’s a classic, it’s a rousing film that gets people so fired up and it played brilliantly and all the parts that were meant to rouse people roused people, it made people laugh, it made people cry, and at the end of the movie they got a huge standing ovation. Pete Seeger found them backstage, got a paper bag and apparently wrote “this is a documentary that will last forever, and it’s a great film, and this is a quote - you can use it everywhere you go.”
Julia: Anyway, so you get a few of those in your life – just a few.
Steve: Two moments for me – I work a lot with young people, with kids in schools, and I’ve had the privilege of working in a huge range of schools in terms of economic disparity and it’s been a great learning experience for me. One of the things in my early days, I had worked with a group of seventh graders from a really poor school in Cincinnati, and at the end of the whole thing I made VHS tapes of the movies for all the kids that were in it, and we had our premiere the last day of school, all the kids are in the gym, so we show the movie, it’s a big hit, it’s funny, it’s cool, I give all the kids their tapes, and each one gets a VHS tape and I feel all good for myself and I’m walking down the hall leaving the school and there’s kids everywhere and this little kid, this fifth grader or sixth grader, goes “Steve, Steve! I got $2, I sold my tape! I sold the movie!” and I was crushed, I was like “You sold it? Why? It’s your movie, I made it for you, you gave it away?” And she looked at me and said “I don’t have a VCR!” Boom! Of course, right? It’s brilliant that she sold the movie and she made 2 dollars! And for me, that was a great moment, and a really important moment.
But we’ve gotten to film in nudist colonies, we’ve gotten to follow Grateful Dead fans in crazy dusty mud-strewn campgrounds, I’ve seen Julia filming riot police with shotguns aimed at her and she didn’t flinch --
Julia: -- we got to film Obama coming out as the Presidential nominee --
Steve: -- in Denver, in the coliseum --
Julia: -- but the best were really The Lion in the House and the workers at GM.
Steve: You aren’t family of these people and you’re allowed in and it’s just an amazing responsibility and privilege.
Especially for people that know that they like documentary but are not yet sold on their ability to do social issue specific, if you have someone who hasn’t worked in social issue documentary and can identify a problem they’re interested in building a film around, what are a good first few steps for somebody that’s really pissed off or moved by a situation but haven’t made films before or have only made fiction and not documentary?
Julia: Just get out there and start listening, start looking, start meeting people, immerse yourself. And I think it’s also really important to really put down somehow, why you care about this, so from the beginning you have that somewhere on a piece of paper and you can refer to later – why is this important to you? Why do you want to do this? It shouldn’t be just “oh, I want to make a film”, it should be because this is important and people need to know about it. If you just do it because you want to make a film, you’re going to run out of steam because it’s so hard. You have to do it out of passion for what you think is important to say, what you think the issue is. It’s also good to not decide ahead of time what the exact issue is, but to get in there and investigate and learn and listen to all sides and stand in the shoes of the other; if you’re mad at the landlord class or the banks or the polluters, whatever it is, the men who beat their wives, you have to stand in their shoes and see how they see the world too. I think that’s important.
Steve: Casting, casting, casting. And that’s a word that’s weird to use in terms of documentary but what Julia said is exactly right: you have to get out there and meet people and immerse yourself. You cannot make a documentary about an issue you care about deeply in the abstract. You need to find real people with real lives who will become the vessels to deal with your story through their lives, their issues, their fight – we rely on persons or people going through something as the vessel to deal with issues. Name me a doc that deals with an issue and it probably has a person or people going through it, right?
Julia: Not all – Food, Inc?
Steve: Food, Inc is full of people dealing with the issue. I feel like you can’t find those people in the abstract, or through research or Google-ing, you have to get out there physically, put your body out there, put your voice out there. I think developing an ability to talk to people in a coffee shop or a bar is a huge skill for documentarians - how you talk to people, how you find that person who could make an introduction, working that chain of – “if I’m gonna go to this coffee shop, will you tell the owner I’m coming down?” or “Could you tell so and so who I am?”
Julia: It’s more important to be curious than to be knowledgeable when you approach a situation. It’s more important to be curious and caring and open and want to know, and to know why you want to know beyond “I want to make a film”. Why do you care? It could be any number of things – something that happened to your family, or you live in that neighborhood, or you knew someone like that…you have to find your own reason, and that’s why I say write that down because that will be the root of something that will go on. The other thing I would say is, docs often benefit from time, from observing things occurring over time…sometimes you walk into a bar and you meet someone and they’re amazing and that’s the story, but other times, you have to sort of in your own mind as a young filmmaker think “I have to kind of be in this for the long haul and ride this out”. In terms of shooting, with sound and all that, I think there are fewer hurdles with that – I think it’s important to get a halfway decent camera, and to get a little instruction on like, how to make a nice frame and make sure your mic is close and a few basic things like that but you can get that in a few hours from a good teacher. You shouldn’t get hung up on technology.
Steve: But finding people who are compelling, open, willing to collaborate with you, and have something they want to share - that’s the real job. Once you’ve found that person and started the relationship the camerawork comes easy.
Julia: And there’s lots of stuff, like start shooting as soon as you can, but not too soon --
Steve: -- don’t start shooting so soon that you alienate people. People have to know you’re serious and real and care and not just trying to get a cool moment. We’ve made mistakes about shooting too early or without being totally clear about permissions and stuff.
Tips for making films with people that you’re close to without hating each other at the end of the day?
Steve: Don’t talk about the film once you start drinking. If you’re going to have wine with dinner or go to a bar, don’t get into it. Don’t talk about the film in bed at night. Be willing to try ideas the other person has and test screen it a lot because the world will be the third party – you might disagree with your partner, but you let the world also tell you what they think. And if you do happen to be right, don’t gloat about it.
Julia Reichert & Steve Bognar - Career Advice by Center for Social Media