Sharon Liese on Looking at America’s Delicate Social Fabric Through “The Flagmakers”

“You really get the temperature of this country by the flags,” SugarRay says as he scans the front porches of houses on his drive to work in “The Flagmakers,” looking at all the Old Glories that quite possibly he had a hand in processing as a production supervisor at Eder Flag in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He can take personal pride in a job well done in seeing his handiwork around town, but as a national symbol, he’s more circumspect, knowing that the dream it reflects has long been out of reach as he seems to work full-time in futility to make enough to support his family and as co-directors Cynthia Wade and Sharon Liese follow him in the fall of 2020, he’s only a few miles removed from where Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black resident of Kenosha, was paralyzed after being shot by police in a clear use of excessive force, and only a few hours’ drive away from Minneapolis, Minnesota where George Floyd was killed earlier that year. Whereas American flags could show a unity in a neighborhood, the mix of Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter flags that accompany them or have replaced them altogether tell a different story now.

While the front yard pageantry would seem to indicate a country that has lost its common threads, it’s shrewd of Wade and Liese to look at who is doing the needlepoint on its chief symbol in their engaging new short, a favorite at its recent festival stops at Camden and DOC NYC. At Eder Flag, a century-old manufacturer of American flags that has welcomed immigrants to work on its factory floor for generations, the directing duo finds a situation that appears at first glance what the founding fathers had in mind as a workforce made up of mostly immigrants seizes the opportunity for stability, leaving behind untenable situations elsewhere, whether it is a former prisoner of war in Bosnia or a Puerto Rican who lost everything in a hurricane. However, for as much care as they put into the work of stitching the stars and stripes, turning each flag around 150 times in order to get it just right, the film exposes the increasingly fraying social fabric where they now live in which one employee Barb, feels compelled to work in spite of her poor health when she hardly has the money to retire on, and another Ali, who fled Iraq with his family out of fear violence would touch them finds himself assaulted as a foreigner when shopping at Wal-Mart.

Still, in taking a unique perspective to show America as it is, “The Flagmakers” holds all the promise of what it could be as Radica, a sewing manager at Eder who moved to the US from Serbia 28 years earlier, leads her multicultural staff in exercises where there may be language barriers abound but everyone comes together effortlessly around the same goals. Liese and Wade gracefully bring a number of disparate elements into focus themselves with the film, which is making its debut tonight on the National Geographic Channel before arriving later this month on Disney+ and Liese spoke about the three-year process of making the film, complicated by COVID and made all the more dramatic by the highly politicized times that followed.

How did you and Cynthia join forces on this?

Cynthia and I go way back, and we’ve worked on some shorts together and some features, and then of course, we do our own [individual] projects as well, but we talk a lot about what’s going on in the world and we started talking about the anti-immigrant sentiment that was building in 2018. Even before that, we knew we wanted to find a project where we could maybe address that and we found a place in Kansas City that was providing sewing teaching to immigrants in the area. It was a six-week program and we started following that and thought that would be the film, but then one of the participants in the program got a job at a factory making American flags and all kinds of bells went off.

We [thought], “Whoa, this is even more of a story, and we couldn’t get access to that particular flag factory, but we thought well, maybe there are other flag factories across the country where immigrants and refugees are being hired. We really hit the jackpot when we did our search and found Eder Flag in Oak Creek, Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee, and Milwaukee happens to be a very, very diverse community and there are a lot of immigrants there, so we realized this is the best place to be able to talk about what immigrants mean to this country, but also talk about the other issue that was brewing in terms of the flag being coopted by a certain group in America.

This ended up being a three-year shoot when you were expecting to shoot for six weeks in Kansas City. That patience shows up on screen, but what was it like to realize you were in it for the long haul on this?

Well, for one thing, after we were filming for six months in 2019, the pandemic hit and once that happened, we were very limited in when and how we could get into the factory, so everything that we envisioned how we were going to shoot became a challenge. We had to wait [when people at Eder Flag] were shrouded in masks and partitions were put up between work stations and there are a lot of scenes we shot at people’s homes through windows and doors because we didn’t want to jeopardize their health by going in, in case one of us had something, though we would test every time and quarantine after we traveled. We even drove sometimes instead of flying so that we could assure them that we were as safe as possible. Then we even pivoted and we started going to other parts of the country and started following other types of flags.

But we ultimately went back to the factory in Wisconsin and it took a while for the masks not to be worn anymore and for things to evolve in the factories so that we could shoot in there. It was one of those things that was a silver lining because when we had to shoot over a three-year period, there were so many things that happened in the country that were so pertinent to the American flag that we were able to capture that. We did not expect to have such violent racial unrest in the country and so close to home there, right there in Wisconsin [or the events of] January 6th as most people weren’t, so we just happened to be filming when those events occurred and we were able to do what documentary filmmakers do and follow the story.

Radica, the sewing manager from Serbia, serves as a wonderful way into the story. Was she an obvious focal point?

It was actually very interesting because we did several days of meeting with employees, just having conversations with them and seeing their interest in being part of this and Radica definitely stood out to us because of her position at the factory, her story of coming to the country 28 years ago and also [how] she’s so eloquent. But at one point, because we had three different editors [with] different approaches to the storytelling, we actually didn’t have Radica as our guide. We went completely verite and then we circled back and said our initial instincts were right and we put Radica back in as the voice and the person who leads us through the story.

This may not have been much of a consideration, but it’s telling of your sensitivity that rather than asking your subjects to speak English, a second language for many at the factory, many, most prominently Ali, an Iraqi, is interviewed in his native tongue. What went into that?

Yeah, we wanted people to be able to express themselves in their first language so they could be completely heard and it took more than double time to get all these interpreters and coordinate with them so that we could have people answer in their own language. Ali’s English is so much better than I could speak Arabic, but he was only in America for 90 days when we were filming with him and we could have Radica interpreted when she spoke Serbian or Radica would interpret for us when other people spoke Serbian, but it was very important to us to let people have all the tools of communication that were at their disposal to be able to express themselves freely and speaking about complex things. We had someone in there that didn’t make the final cut, but she spoke Spanish and people from Burma, so we had so many interpreters at various times.

It’s a nice mix of subjects, including the Americans SugarRay and Barb, who are diverse in their own ways. What led you to them?

Yeah, in some ways, they’re polar opposites [though] everyone is connected by their sense of humanity, so we really loved to lean into those grey areas because we didn’t want anybody to be an archetype of anything. We wanted to show the range of people and their values, so here’s SugarRay enjoying his work a lot, but he has a complicated relationship with America and then you’ve got Barb, who loves America and loves the American flag, but the things she stands for really are not aligned with how she feels about the people that she works with and the relationships she builds there [at Eder Flag], so when we noticed those things going on, we knew we wanted to include those in the film.

The world has changed so much since you first started out on this, but as the film makes the point, not so much in so many crucial ways. What’s it been like putting this out there?

We’ve gotten such a tremendous response from people because there’s so many frustrated at how much the flag has been co-opted, so it really seems to be speaking people [not only] in terms of how they relate to the flag but to the country. People are coming to us after screenings and talking about how they don’t feel comfortable putting out the American flag in front of their house because they don’t want people to think something about them that’s not true.

“The Flagmakers” will air on National Geographic Channel on Thursday, Dec. 8th following the premiere of Matthew Heineman’s “Retrograde” at approximately 11:09pm and will start streaming thereafter on December 21st on Disney+.