An Oscar Contender ‘The Flagmakers,’ Immigrants and the Native Born Stitch Together Old Glory

Eder Flag employees Evelia, Vasilika, Raheela, and Hazarah sew and fold flagsPhoto Credit: National Geographic/Heidi Gutman

Eder Flag in Oak Creek, Wisc. makes American flags – a huge number of them. More than five million a year, in fact. 

It sells 3’ by 5’ outdoor flags for $39.99 or 50’ by 80’ giant Old Glories for a little under $10,000, and flags of every size in between and the flagpoles to fly them on. What’s especially remarkable about Eder is not so much its annual sales, but who makes the flags. Most of the company’s workforce hails from around the world – Iraq, Tanzania, Mexico, Algeria, Serbia, Bosnia and other parts of the globe – people born under another flag.

The Oscar-contending short documentary The Flagmakers reveals the stories of many of those who sew, assemble, package and ship for Eder. The film directed by Sharon Liese and Cynthia Wade premieres on the National GeographicChannel tonight, and launches on Disney+ on December 21.

“It’s majority immigrants and refugees sewing the American flag,” Wade says, noting Eder has become the country’s largest manufacturer of flags and flagpoles. Liese adds, “We fell in love [with the story] right away.”

Radica, an immigrant from Serbia, works as a sewing manager at the company.

“In all our flags we have pieces of our employees’ stories,” Radica says in the film, in her accented English. “Their thoughts, what they are thinking while they are making that flag, ‘Is today a better day than yesterday?’ That flag has a story to tell.”

Barb, one of Eder’s American-born employees, describes the assembly procedure: “You don’t think about all the sewing that goes into the flag. The first step is sewing the star field to the short stripes. The next person’ll take the long stripes.” Another employee says, “When I put the last star, the flag have life.” 

Each flag takes a lot of teamwork to produce and on the largest flags, seemingly every Eder employee lends a hand in the folding. It’s a striking image in a polarized America, where political differences are tearing at the fabric of the republic. 

“When we walked in there, we were like, ‘Wow, these people can’t necessarily — they don’t understand each other’s languages and they all have different backgrounds and different beliefs, yet they’re all collaborating and respectful and helping each other to get these flags, five million flags a year, out the door,” Liese recalls. “We were just so impressed with that.”

Liese adds, “When we walked out [of Eder], we knew we were never going to look at the American flag the same way again. And when we had that experience, we were like, ‘That’s what we want.’ We want to move the mark for viewers, because that was our experience. We want people to have just a little different perspective on the flag.”

The Stars and Stripes stirs intense and often-complicated feelings in many people. The Flagmakers reflects that – the film doesn’t swear allegiance to one definition of what the flag means. SugarRay, an African-American production supervisor at Eder, comments that he can’t bring himself to fly the American flag outside his home.

“I understand the pride of immigrants looking at the American flag,” he says in the film, “being in a country where you could aspire to be anything that you want to be. Like, that’s real. But when you start to learn more about how this country was built, for Black and brown people it really doesn’t kind of include you.”

Wade, a 2008 Academy Award winner for the short documentary Freeheld, has examined her own feelings about flying the flag.

“I was thinking from the beginning, why is it that I feel kind of uneasy with putting a flag out?” Wade says. “Why do I feel like it was co-opted? Why do I feel it was sort of taken [by “patriots”]? So, I was thinking about that. And of course, we started this film in 2019 in a different administration, a different moment in America, and then obviously it was filming through the summer 2020. Ultimately, it would be a terrible film, frankly, if it was just rah-rah flag waving. And my hope is that in some cases you walk in thinking it’s one film, because there’s a shift — and we sort of come out in a different place. And that was super important.”

Emphasizing shades of gray in the red, white and blue, the film raises subtle questions about what America stands for. Barb, who appears to come from a conservative background, admits she can’t afford medicine she needs; Ali, an Eder employee originally from Iraq, speaks of his love of this country, but he is assaulted and knocked unconscious in an unprovoked attack at a Walmart, leaving him to wonder if he was the victim of an anti-Muslim attack.

The Flagmakers won Best Documentary Short at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, as well as the audience award at the Denver International Film Festival. It premiered at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine in September, and recently earned a Best Documentary Short nomination from the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek-Nigerian NBA superstar who plays for the Milwaukee Bucs, has come on board as an executive producer, giving added prominence to the documentary.

“As an immigrant myself, I find this film incredibly personal and a deeply moving testament to those who call this country ‘home,’” Antetokounmpo said in a statement provided to Deadline. He added, “Each one of these inspiring individuals have overcome adversity and challenges in their lives and bring those unique experiences and stories as they craft the American flag.”