‘American Factory’, ‘Learning to Skateboard’ Win Doc Oscars

By Pat Mullen

American Factory ended an impressive year-long run by winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The doc directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar went into the ceremony as the odds-on favourite and the Academy didn’t let them down. The film about the struggles of the working class in a Dayton, Ohio manufacturing plant prevailed in a night that yielded few surprises until the end. Reichert and Bognar used their speech to acknowledge the inspirational work among their fellow nominees in a strong field. In one of the few, if only, shout-outs to Karl Marx in Oscar history, Reichert called upon the workers of the world to unite if they ever hope to see change.

American Factory took the lead during a tight awards season race with Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, which many presumed to be the Oscar frontrunner until it missed the nomination. Reichert and Bognar’s film was fêted by numerous pockets of the industry in an acclaimed run that began at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival where American Factory won the directing prize. It also won the Directors’ Guild of America Award, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature, top prizes from the Cinema Eye Honors, along with awards from numerous critics’ circles including the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Reichert’s career was the focus of Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award retrospective last year.

The night marked the first win for Reichert on her fourth nomination, while it was Bognar’s second nomination. American Factory also brought the second win for Netflix in the feature documentary category after 2017’s Icarus. The film had the additional honour of being the first doc produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. The former President took to Twitter to congratulate the filmmakers on their win. The current President did not.

On the shorts front, the Oscar went to Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which was also favoured to win. The film directed by Carol Dysinger tells the inspirational story of young girls in Kabul, Afghanistan who gain confidence through skateboarding while receiving an education. Dysinger was one of several winners who used the stage to encourage women in the industry to knock down doors and pursue their passions. She highlighted the encouragement of receiving a student Academy Award from Frank Capra early in her career, as well as the inspiration she drew from the girls at Skateistan (the school depicted in her film). The list of wins for Skateboarding leading into the Oscars included the short doc prizes at the British Academy Awards (BAFTAs), the International Documentary Association Awards, and the Tribeca Film Festival.

Last night’s telecast, however, will be remembered for the historic upset that ended the show. While most of the wins were expected, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite topped off the night with a come-from-behind Best Picture win that many pundits expected to go to Sam Mendes’ war drama 1917. Parasite made history as the first film not in the English-language to win Best Picture. (Although 2011’s winner The Artist was a French-Belgian co-production, it was a silent film.) Like American Factory, Parasite dominated the festival circuit throughout 2019. Their wins proved that the Academy, as much as we complain about them, sometimes gets it right.