The rustbelt rebound story American Factory won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature tonight, earning gold for the first collaboration between Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, which produced with Participant Media.
Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert and producer Jeff Reichert accepted the award from presenter Mark Ruffalo, who noted in his introduction that four of the five nominated docs were either directed or co-directed by women.
Reichert saluted her fellow “sister and brother documentarians” from the stage, noting, “We are so proud. We are inspired by you guys.”
The Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions picked up American Factory after its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, launching the film on Netflix as part of their deal with the streaming platform. The documentary, produced by Participant, explores what happened when a Chinese auto glass giant opened a plant on the site of a shuttered GM factory near Dayton, Ohio (the same facility seen in Bognar and Reichert’s 2009 Oscar-nominated short film The Last Truck). The community’s initial joy over new jobs eventually waned as conflicts arose over tough working conditions and low, non-union wages, as well as a Chinese management style that rubbed some American workers the wrong way.
Bognar and Reichert, who live in Dayton, were joined at the Oscars by five of the plant workers from the film, a group of American and Chinese blue collar employees.
“Our film is from Ohio and China—go Buckeyes!” Reichert said onstage, “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.”
It was the fourth Oscar nomination and first victory for Reichert, in a documentary career that goes back to 1971. She and Bognar, who are a couple, had agreed never to work together for the sake of their relationship, but relented beginning with the 2006 Emmy-winning documentary A Lion in the House, a film about families with children stuck by cancer. Reichert has been open about her own battle with cancer and recently said she doesn’t plan to make another film.
“Thank you Academy, thank you to everyone who trusted us to tell your story,” Bognar told the Oscar audience, adding a shout-out to Netflix, Participant and the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions and “the tough…great people of Dayton, Ohio.”
American Factory triumphed over another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, as well as the Syrian-themed films For Sama and The Cave, and Honeyland, the documentary from North Macedonia that is also nominated for Best International Feature Film.