DAYTON, Ohio - Hundreds of autoworkers who lost their jobs when General Motors closed an Ohio sport-utility vehicle plant cheered and cried at a recent screening of a documentary film that profiled their lives during the plant's final days.
Some of the workers lingered outside the Schuster Performing Arts Center, in suburban Moraine, south of Dayton, admiring the final vehicle produced at the plant - a white GMC parked on the sidewalk.
Workers then streamed into a theater to watch the HBO documentary: "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant." The 40-minute film is scheduled to debut on Labor Day, Sept. 7.
About 1,600 GM workers and their families attended the screening last week, and another 900 people filled the seats.
Many of the workers, casually dressed in jeans, T-shirts, ball caps and tennis shoes, picked up free popcorn-filled paper bags and chilled bottled water distributed in the lobby.
"Some of you have told us this has been the hardest year of your life," co-producer Steven Bognar told the crowd before the screening. "It's not just the assembly community. It's all the suppliers, the people who made parts for that plant, the people who drove those trains. So many people have been impacted by the closing of that plant. We respect that. We honor that."
About 1,100 workers lost their jobs when GM closed the plant in December. Bognar told the workers that he understands if some of them had mixed feelings about seeing the film.
"We've tried to bear witness to what you went through so the world will know, and we thank you for helping us tell the story," he said.
Cheers erupted when one of the interviewed workers referred to the plant as a great operation. But the theater grew silent when another worker, tears rolling down his cheeks, said that the reality of the plant's closing didn't sink in until he had to give up his badge. And there was a hush when another worker referred to the plant as a gentle dragon laying down to die.
Darlene Henson, who worked at the plant for 20 years, attended the screening reluctantly.
"It's just like losing your family all over again," said the 41-year-old Henson, of Riverside. "I don't want to relive it all again."
Some workers were eager to attend the screening and reunite with former colleagues.
Louis Carter, a plant worker for 15 years, fears that the reality of the closing will sink in after watching the film.
"I thought I would retire from there," said the 46-year-old Carter, a father of five. "I thought my kids would be working there one day. All of a sudden, the doors just closed on us."
From last June through December, a film crew, led by producers Bognar and Julia Reichert, shot footage of workers outside the plant, in nearby bars and restaurants, and even in the workers' own cars. The workers themselves shot footage inside the plant.
"This in a way is a chronicle of the end of the blue-collar middle class," Bognar said.
Carter, of Harrison Township, applied the bar-coded sticker to the final vehicle that rolled off the assembly line.
"It was kind of sad, knowing that that was going to be your last job coming off the line, and after that you were going to be laid off," he said.
GM said that it closed the plant because high gasoline prices reduced demand for the vehicles built there. Moraine officials hope to attract another business to the site. They've gotten a few nibbles, but no solid prospects.
Meanwhile, the sprawling 4.4 million-square-foot complex, once a beehive of activity, sits vacant and silent.
"It was a sign of prosperity," said 45-year-old Kate Geiger, who worked at the plant for 24 years. "When you drove by there, it was almost like a cornerstone of our society in Dayton. Now, part of the foundation has been ripped out."
Elsewhere, things are slowly starting to look up for the beleaguered auto industry. Shoppers are snapping up cars and trucks so quickly that GM said last week that it would boost production for the rest of the year to keep up with the Cash for Clunkers demand.
GM said that it would add 60,000 vehicles to its production schedule in the third and fourth quarters and bring back about 1,350 laid-off workers. GM will add shifts to factories in Ingersoll, Ontario, and Lordstown, Ohio.