Two of Last Weekend’s LIFF Movies Had Local Connections

By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 12, 2019
Supplied Photo Actress Mary Birdsong, who grew up on the Island and graduated from Southern Regional High School, starred in director Gretl Claggett’s “Stormchaser.”

Long Beach Island — The folks at the Lighthouse International Film Festival never said in advance that any of their 2019 offerings had a connection with LBI.

But it turned out that two certainly did.

Julia Reichert, who directed the festival’s closing film “American Factory” along with Steven Bognar, is a New Jersey native who vacationed on the Island as a child and worked summers at such places as Flo’s Diner in Spray Beach as a teen.

Actress Mary Birdsong, who grew up on the Island and graduated from Southern Regional High School, starred in director Gretl Claggett’s “Stormchaser.”

The two films would, at first, seem to be very different animals.

“American Factory” is a 115-minute sequel to Reichert and Bognar’s 2009 Academy Award-nominated short “The Last Truck” that documented the closing of a General Motors plant outside of Dayton, Ohio. In 2014 the plant was purchased by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, who reopened it as Fuyao Glass America, manufacturing windshields and other automobile glass. Cao sent over hundreds of Chinese workers to train and supervise a couple thousand Americans, many of whom had worked for GM. The film shows the interplay of the Americans and the Chinese, explores the difference in the work culture of the two countries, and documents an unsuccessful effort to unionize the plant.

“Stormchaser” is a 28-minute scripted film that is set in a Tornado Alley in the Midwest but was actually filmed in Vermont (this Green Mountain State native thought he recognized its distinctive hills). Birdsong plays Bonnie Blue, who, as a child, chased tornadoes with her father. As an adult a recession has forced her to take a job as a door-to-door saleswoman for Flip Siding, a shoddy company run by Flip Smyth, played by Stephen Plunkett, who attended the screening along with Claggett (Birdsong was performing in a play in Los Angeles and could not attend). How shoddy are Smyth’s goods? Bonnie knocks on one door to be met by a man with a shotgun who wasn’t happy that the shingles Flip Siding had sold him were blown away by the first storm that hit, a storm that didn’t even include a twister. Smyth not only produces crap products but treats his sales team like crap as well. When he burns Bonnie with a commission check that is far smaller than she expected she gets her revenge, but in the end it is Flip’s own product that leads to his demise.

As Claggett told the audience after her film’s screening, she wanted to make a movie about a new breed of storm chasers, the jackals who prey on disaster survivors, something Island residents, she said, were assuredly familiar with in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

So, what can “American Factory” and “Stormchaser” possibly have in common?

Well, both films have moments of unexpected humor. The film crew of “American Factory” traveled to China to see how Cao’s factories there were operated. One couldn’t help but laugh watching a huge company party that included an elaborate musical performance that had workers praising the firm and its chairman in song and dance. Meanwhile, Plunkett’s performance as Flip in “Stormchaser” was hilarious. He told the LBI audience that he had a lot of fun playing a total a-hole. It is easy to summarize “Stormchaser” – think “Glengarry Glen Ross” meets “Twister” meets a hillbilly version of “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

In the end, though, both films capture the pathos of American workers in this country’s post-industrial age.

One worker in “American Factory” says he used to make $29 an hour for GM but felt lucky to make 12 bucks an hour when he started at Fuyao. As for Birdsong’s Bonnie Blue, the situation seems even worse.

In today’s America millions of desperate people have to take high-pressure, low-paying, low-esteem jobs to survive. As one worker in “American Factory” bemoaned, “We’ll never see that kind of money again,” remembering the good old days of a secure, high-paying unionized job.

In the end “American Factory” was a rather depressing film. As for “Stormchaser,” Birdsong’s Bonnie Blue may have gotten satisfaction with her revenge on Flip Smyth, but what will she do for a job now? Her only hope is for yet another dollar store to open in her small town.

— Rick Mellerup



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