Near the end of "American Made Movie," a 2013 film documentary on American manufacturing that's just now gaining wide release in the U.S., the conversation turns to the most quintessential of American-made products: the Stars and Stripes.
Are the flags that people buy at stores actually made in America?
In South Boston, most people may know the answer to this question. "American Made Movie" clues in the rest of the world — by paying a visit to South Boston's Annin Flagmakers plant and interviewing the company's president, Carter Beard.
In an 85-minute film that skips smartly from the industrial ruins of Detroit to the rising manufacturing centers of East Asia and back again to America's small towns to witness their struggles to secure a place in the global economy, it's the South Boston segment that brings the core message home:
Yes, U.S. manufacturing is worth saving, and there are many people working to do so — successfully.
Produced by documentary filmmakers Nathaniel McGill and Vincent Vittorio, "American Made Movie" had limited release in U.S. cities last year and earned general acclaim — with the Los Angeles Times praising it as "patriotic but not overly rah-rah, inspiring without an excess of feel-good calculation." This month, the movie became available for viewing via cable video-on-demand and digital platforms; it's going on the web in May, and it will be available through Netflix and Hulu in the fall.
"America Made Movie" touches on issues that will be familiar to anyone who runs a small business, or works in the field of economic development, or has ever felt the impact of the decline of domestic manufacturing — which is to say most of us. Its elegiac images of closed factories come from visits to Rust Belt cities and hollowed-out southern towns, although South Boston, in a cameo role, is assigned the task of undercutting the conventional wisdom.
After posing the proverbial question — are American flags made in America? — the documentary cuts to an interview with Beard. (The segment was shot at Annin's New Jersey corporate office, where Beard works, although the film doesn't mention this fact.) Framed by snippets of the local plant shop floor, Beard recounts the company's long history of producing American flags since its founding in 1847. It was an Annin-made flag that draped the coffin of Abraham Lincoln, that flew atop the hill at Iwo Jima, that astronauts unfurled on the moon. Deep in the film, Beard touches on another signature event in U.S. history: the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I lost some friends in the towers of 911," he says haltingly on camera, "and so I think in the last 10 years I've viewed the American flag differently than I used to. You make it every day, you're worried about the workers being efficient, the fabric being dyed the right shade, the star fields having the right density of stiches and the stars — but then 911 happens, you view the flag much differently.
"I think that most people feel it just makes the most sense to make the flag here."
The filmmakers make a deliberate appeal for consumers to think the same way about other American-made products. Vittorio, interviewed yesterday by telephone from New York City, where he is promoting the movie, said the visit to South Boston began with a contrarian debate: Are there any items made overseas that Americans would — or should — resist purchasing?
"I personally would feel disgraced buying something that represents the country I'm from and buying it when it was manufactured somewhere else," he said. He and his cinematic partners came up with two goods that fit the description: the American flag and soldiers' boots. The footage concerning the latter didn't make the film's final cut. But the segment on Annin did.
Vittorio said the impetus for "American Made Movie" was partly personal — his wife's family is from Detroit, his co-producer's father worked for General Motors — but it also stems from a long-standing interest in economic matters. The documentary touches on a wide range of proposed solutions but is studiously non-political — "manufacturing is just too complicated to understand" through the lens of ideology.
In promoting the movie's video-on-demand release over the past several weeks, Vittorio received an opportunity to testify to a congressional panel — and used the appearance to screen the movie for elected officials and staff. "They were really fired up. The best thing they said is that this film brought a sense of hope.
"It's been well-received — it hasn't reached the millions that we hoped, but it's been well received.
The movie, released by Virgil Films, will become available on the web in May at MadeAmerican.com. It can now be viewed through digital and cable video-on-demand services, and it should become available on Netflix and Hulu in September, said Vittorio.
Also, on May 20, the film will be released on DVD and BluRay. The disc versions come with a special touch — 100 percent of the components, from the plastic cases to the paper liners, are American-made.
"I think [the documentary] can ultimately continue this conversation in the hope that people will talk about and hopefully change things soon," said Vittorio.