By Patrick Sullivan
Northern Express: How did you end up making a film about your family?
Sasha Reuther: Obviously, I grew up around the story. Im Victor Reuthers
grandson, so throughout my childhood wed spend holidays together with my
grandfather. We grew up in Washington D.C., so I was only right down the
street from him and I grew up around these amazing stories of the picket
line battles and my grandfather was the international director of the
union so he would travel overseas and he would talk about traveling in
Japan and Germany. And of course, he lost an eye in an assassination
attempt, so heres this kind of larger than life character that I grew up
Then coupled with that, I really was addicted to movies as a kid. I just
watched so many. My mom and I would sit together on the weekends. Even at
a young age, I knew I wanted to make that magic happen on the screen, so I
applied to film school. I got into NYU. ...
It was kind of like, I knew I had this story in the back pocket. Like, you
know, someday Ive got to tell the family story.
NE: How long have you been working on this film?
Reuther: In film school I at least went down and did a long series of
videotaped interviews with my grandfather while he was still very sharp
and we went through his memoir, he went through each chapter and I had
read the book, but even then it was such a large legacy for me to really
understand all of it. And I said, Papa, ... how about (you) tell me every
story you can think of, and well just talk, so it was very free-hand. ...
I graduated in 1998 from NYU, so its been many years since then, but at
least Id taped that and then I moved on to doing other short format
commercials and music videos and things like that.
When my grandfather passed away in 2004, there were two different
memorials for him, one in Washington and one in Detroit, and there was a
fascinating collection of his allies that were still around, civil rights
leaders and politicians, and they all came and they were all there and
they were telling these amazing stories.
My wife sort of was kicking me, she was saying, I know you really want to
do this project. You better get out there and start talking to these guys.
And it really started from there. It took a couple of years to get rolling
after my grandfathers memorial, but in 2007 I hired a co-producer, I
hired a cinematographer, and we just got out there, raised a little money
and started to tape interviews. And the rest is history.
NE: Does it frustrate you that some of the things your family fought for,
things that were unheard of at the time, like pensions, automatic
retirement ages, and unemployment benefits, became almost taken for
granted and now are disappearing again?
Reuther: Of course. On a higher level. Im frustrated by the fact that
most of my generation (doesnt know anything about the history of unions).
Had I not grown up in this family, I would know really generally nothing
about labor history, let alone the Reuthers. Theres not a lot of concrete
labor history in the typical high school books. You know, we get a lot of
civil rights history. We get a lot of Dr. Martin Luther King, which, you
know, no denying how important those legacies are, but we kind of skip
over some key elements of labor history and it frustrates me that no one
of my generation could ever recall having a labor leader as their role
model. It just doesnt exist. ...
I know there are labor leaders out there that are still doing the right
thing and theyve committed their lives just to the welfare of the common
man, and that takes a lot. So these are men and women that are doing
heroic things but nobody knows anything about them. Theres kind of like a
lack of PR. ...
I feel saddened because theres such a negative image of unions and its
really like, theyre the ones that got us in this mess and of course
thats what were going to do, were going to start stripping labors
rights because then maybe we can get back on a solid footing, which I
think is ridiculous.
NE: Assassins attempted to kill Walter Reuther in 1938 and Victor Reuther
in 1949 in much the same way and neither of those cases were solved. How
much does that hang over your family? How does your film address those
Reuther: Im a couple of generations removed from it. ... I cant say I
grew up much around the next generation of family members, meaning my
father and that level, feeling like we have to get to the bottom of this,
just because I kind of feel like the UAW themselves, at that time, made
such efforts to have their own investigation and how difficult that must
have been. From what Ive read and understood, there wasnt really a
tremendous amount of cooperation from the FBI. I think there was an
investigation but maybe not as thorough as possible. I dont think someone
like J. Edgar Hoover was a big fan of Walter in general. ...
(My parents) were just kids when the assassination attempt happened, so
they werent really around (to know) who was in Walters circle, who was
in my grandfathers circle. It was a very different time in Detroit and
there were a lot of competing forces and I think that it was a tough town.
We do cover this in the film. To be honest, it really wasnt my place to
point a finger at anyone, because I think that the Reuthers had a lot of
enemies at that time.
NE: Do you or other family members believe Walter Reuther was assassinated?
Reuther: Its hard for me to speak for all the different family members. I
think in my life, every few years or at different times, Id be curious
about it and Id hear one extended family member or another bring it up
again and say, you know, they should have done a more thorough
investigation of that.
My grandfather, even he kind of wavered here and there. Since I spent a
lot of time studying his memoir, and several other memoirs, I know in his
memoir, which was pretty recent after the crash I think he finished his
book in 1976, so it wasnt long after that, and in his book he pretty
clearly states that it was his feeling that at the time that there wasnt
enough evidence to call it any kind of conspiracy. ...
And Ive read through the National Transportation Safety Board (report),
Ive seen their final report that does say that yes there is a strong
possibility that the altimeter was faulty or could have been put in upside
down, so there are some interesting things there.
To keep it short, my general impression was that to have such a nationally
influential figure pass away in that kind of an instance, that has a
little bit of a shadow of, OK, we know it was difficult weather, we know
the runways werent lit as well as certain major runways, and we knew that
it was probably a difficult approach in that kind if weather, but if it
had that one inkling, of, oh, well, its possible that the altimeter was
put in upside down or there was a screw loose, I think that there should
have been a followup investigation, just to see. I mean, he was at the
level of Dr. King or Robert Kennedy, and in that same kind of liberal
power group, and I cant see why there wasnt s little more of a thorough
investigation or a followup.
NE: Have you spent much time in Traverse City?
Reuther: I have never been to Traverse City before and Im really looking
forward to it. Ive been up to, not to Traverse City, but with the film we
spent a lot of time mainly in Detroit, in and around Solidarity House, and
a lot of the locations where, sadly, where the former factories used to
be, you know, theyre not really there anymore.
But we did spend a lot of time kind of walking in the steps of my elders.
And we did take a trip -- Ive been to Black Lake, where the UAW Education
Center is, many times in my life. I remember going up there as a kid. It
really is such a beautiful, serene environment up there, but we did go for
the film, with my crew, my co-producer and cinematographer, to take some
footage of that property. We also went to the Pellston Airport, where the
plane went down.