The Barack and Michelle Obama-produced film American Factory snagged an Oscar on Sunday for best documentary – a win for Netflix, which backed the story of a manufacturing plant in the US Midwest reopened by a Chinese billionaire.
The film charts a Rust Belt community’s journey from optimism at the giant plant’s reopening, which brought back vital jobs, towards creeping anger and disillusionment, as the Chinese management imposed strict, exhausting demands on workers – and sacked those who did not comply.
“Our film is from Ohio and China,” director Julia Reichert said. “But it really could be from anywhere that people put on a uniform, punch a clock, trying to make their families have a better life.
“Working people have it harder and harder these days, and we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite,” she said in accepting her statuette.
Co-directed by Reichert and Steven Bognar, the film is an all-access look at how both American and Chinese workers, from blue-collar to management, had their lives transformed by powerful global economic forces.
The story was moving enough to catch notice from none other than the Obamas.
The former first couple acquired American Factory early last year at the Sundance Film Festival, where it had won the directing award.
It was released on Netflix in August 2019 as the first offering from the former first couple’s Higher Ground Productions company.
The film’s co-producer and the factory’s chairman were unable to leave China for the ceremony, due to White House restrictions on travel over the coronavirus panic.
“That inconvenience pales when compared to people losing their lives, suffering because of this virus,” co-director Bognar said backstage.
The Obamas congratulated Reichert and Bognar for their win on Sunday, with the former president calling the film “a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change”.
“Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release,” he tweeted.
The former first lady said she was “glad to see their heart and honesty recognized – because the best stories are rarely tidy or perfect”.
“But that’s where the truth so often lies,” she tweeted.
American Factory bested The Edge of Democracy, The Cave, For Sama and Honeyland to take the Oscar.