Obamas’ studio lands documentary Oscar for ‘American Factory’

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – “American Factory,” a Netflix film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s nascent production house chronicling what happened to a group of Ohio autoworkers laid off during the 2008 recession, won the Oscar for best documentary feature on Sunday.

The documentary, directed by filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, was the first release from Higher Ground Productions, a company the former U.S. president and first lady formed in 2018 in a multiyear collaboration with the Netflix streaming service.

“American Factory” was acquired by Netflix in association with Higher Ground out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the U.S. documentary directing prize.

The film, examining themes of economic dislocation and clashing cultures, traces the experience of workers in Moraine, Ohio, who lost their jobs at a shuttered General Motors factory, only to be rehired six years later after the facility was converted into a Chinese-owned automotive glass plant.

“Our film is from Ohio and China … but it really could be from anywhere that people put on a uniform, punch a clock, try to make their families have a better life,” Reichert said in accepting the award.

“Working people have it harder and harder these days, and we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite,” she added, evoking the famed Marxist rallying cry from “The Communist Manifesto.”

Neither of the Obamas attended Sunday’s ceremony, but Bognar mentioned Higher Ground Productions in his thank-yous from the stage.

“Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change,” Barack Obama later wrote on Twitter. “Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release.”

“American Factory” triumphed over a field of contenders that included “The Cave” and “For Sama,” two documentaries about the civil war in Syria, as well as “The Edge of Democracy,” which chronicles the unraveling of two Brazilian presidencies; and “Honeyland,” about ancient beekeeping traditions in the mountains of North Macedonia.

The production deal between the Obamas and Netflix is a first for any former occupant of the White House.

The closest comparison is former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, whose global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Oscar in 2007. Gore also launched a youth-oriented cable TV network, Current TV, in 2005, but it was sold to Middle East-based Al Jazeera in 2013 and later shut down.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman, Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)

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