“American Factory,” the first title from Barack and Michelle Obama‘s Higher Ground Productions, won Sunday for best documentary feature for a film that tells the story of a Chinese billionaire who opens a glass factory in a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio, and hires both American and Chinese people to work there.
Speaking to USA TODAY on the Oscars red carpet, co-director Julia Rechert said that the Obamas saw the film a “couple days before” Sundance Film Festival last year after Higher Ground executives Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis suggested they watch it.
“And so they saw it and they immediately said, ‘OK, let’s do it,'” Reichert said of the Obamas, who would go on to produce the documentary.
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She also recalled the first and only time the team met the Obamas, right after Michelle had completed her “Becoming” book tour.
“So they come into the room, and you know how President Obama is, he’s like, ‘What’s going on?!'” Reichert recalled. “And he shakes hands with all the crew and everybody that’s there. And we sit down, and we talk. We really talked about storytelling and about why, in their legacy, they wanted to form a company to tell stories. Because they feel like knowing people’s story is how you make a connection.”
The documentary, which won a directing award earlier this year at Sundance, looks at how their cultures clash (with the Chinese workers getting lessons in how Americans are overconfident and need to be praised), how the workers are taken advantage of by management (they’re convinced not to join a union for the security of their jobs) and how automation could take many of their jobs.
“I hope our film makes you see two things: One is that workers around the world are definitely getting pushed down, but also that we can be fair to each other, we can listen to each other,” Reichert said backstage. “I think that’s why President Obama and Mrs. Obama took on our film at Sundance – their company is called Higher Ground Productions, which is a great name – because they thought it could help people listen to each other and, through these stories, create empathy, which then builds relationships. That’s what we all do. We sit down and we tell each other our story and it creates empathy.”
Two people involved with the film, co-producer Mijie Li and entrepreneur Cao Dewang, who was featured in the documentary, were unable to travel from China to attend the ceremony because of the coronavirus travel ban, Reichert added. The Trump administration announced last month a temporary suspension of entry into the United States of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus.
The Obamas launched Higher Ground in spring 2018 in partnership with Netflix, promising a company that would “harness the power of storytelling” and touch on “issues of race and class, democracy and civil rights, and much more.”
Barack Obama congratulated directors Reichert and Steven Bognar “for telling such 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.”
Michelle Obama echoed his statement, cheering on Reichert, Bognar “and the whole crew on winning Best Documentary for #AmericanFactory, Higher Ground’s first release! So 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.”
Contributing: Bill Keveney and David Jackson
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