Milwaukee Magazine Article: This National Geographic Documentary Is Set in Oak Creek

An Oak Creek flag manufacturer is the focus of a locally set documentary that will have its hometown premiere on Thursday night at the Oriental Theatre. The Flagmakers, from National Geographic Films, is the story of employee-owned Eder Flag, which sews and ships five million American flags per year from its Rawson Avenue factory.

Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade and award-winning director Sharon Liese are the creative forces behind the documentary, while Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo receives a credit as an executive director. 

Evelia, Vasilika, Raheela, and Hazarah sew and fold flags; Photo by Womyn Films LLC/Heidi Gutman

Eder Flag’s 200-person workforce is comprised of locals, immigrants and refugees, who stitch the stars and stripes as they wrestle with identity and belonging.

It was Liese who first heard of a sewing program for refugees and immigrants in Kansas City, where she resides. One of the participants of the program landed a job at a flag factory in Kansas City, so Wade and Liese thought they had the setting for their planned film, but the company refused to give them access to the plant.

Radica looks down at a large flag on the light table; Photo by Womyn Films LLC/Heidi Gutman

“So, we went on a nationwide search and found Eder Flag,” Wade said. “Sharon originally talked to Jodi Goglio, the chief operating officer, and I went to Milwaukee and in the spring of 2019 and had a really great conversation with her and asked if we could make a documentary. She took a risk and said yes and over the course of three years, on and off and through a pandemic, a film was born.”

The genesis of the film stemmed, in part, from Wade’s conflicting feelings about the American flag.

“I felt that by 2019, for me, the flag had been co-opted and quick frankly weaponized by a certain group that had a very particular affiliation,” she said. “If you put that sticker on your car or the flag on your porch, you were signaling a certain set of values.”

At the same time, Wade recalled with the fondness joyous Independence Day celebrations as child.

“Growing up, the Fourth of July was my favorite holiday,” she said. “When my kids were young, they were in the Fourth of July parades and loved flying the flags. So why was it that I was having complex feelings about the American flag and also feeling increasingly uncomfortable? It’s my flag, too. So, it really came from a place of exploring my relationship with the flag. Through the immigrants and refugees and Midwestern locals at Eder Flag, we explored not just their relationship with the flag but with the vast complex, diverse, contradictory, wonderful and sometimes troubling country we live in.”

Eder Flag employs workers who immigrated to the United States from countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Morocco, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Serbia, Albania, Cuba, Pakistan and Iraq.

Hazarah (l to r), Amanda, Thay Le, Rajka, Ali, Hector, Jakitha, Wajeda, Sughra, Barbara, Carlixta, Radica, Shahnaz, Maria, Evelia, Aijaz, Jean, Lamyaa, Omaima, Lida, Mahida, Nant, SugarRay, Vimmi, and Raheela smile on the Eder factory floor. Photo by Womyn Films LLC/Heidi Gutman

Sewing manager Radica, a Serbian immigrant, believes every flag has a soul. Ali, a war survivor from Iraq, is learning how to use a sewing machine after arriving in the United States just 90 days prior. Midwest-born Barb’s genuine friendships with her immigrant co-workers belie her staunchly conservative beliefs. SugarRay, a Black man born and raised in Milwaukee, reflects on his complicated relationship with this country.

Each employee is faced with an essential question: What does the American flag represent in a changing nation and world, and for whom?

The Flagmakers offers an intimate glimpse into the people whose hands make the country’s most recognizable icon, Wade said.

The main narrator of the film is Radica, the sewing manager, who has been in the United States for almost 30 years after fleeing her homeland of Serbia when it was on the verge of war.

“She was no longer safe. She and her husband and her young child came over here,” Wade said. “She knew no English and learned the language by watching the TV show “Married with Children.” She started at Eder Flag and in a way achieved the American dream. She worked her way up in the company and feels enormous pride and is very emotional about the American flag.”

Others in the film, however, have more complex relationships with the flag, Wade said.

“The film starts in a more ideological place and a very hopeful place and moves through time through the pandemic, through the summer of 2020, through the shooting of Jacob Blake down the road in Kenosha to the insurrection,” Wade said. “There are these gray areas that the different flagmakers have as the country shifts through this time. But the most amazing thing though is that by the end of the film there is still so much hope.”

Wade said she and Liese weren’t afraid to examine the “really hard truths” about the country in putting together the documentary.

“We don’t sweep American history under the rug,” Wade said. “But we come around the other side in the 35 minutes of the film back to some of the flagmakers and show that the flags that they make represent the best of our country.”

Eder Flag’s diverse workforce displays strength and the benefits of working together, she added.

“More than a dozen languages are spoken on the floor of Eder Flag,” Wade said. “These employees are working together and literally putting their hands on the flags and literally sewing the threads of our most important symbol. They are a like a little America. They learned how to work and celebrate and support each other, regardless of their differences. At the end of the film there is still a whole lot of hope about the promise of this country, but we certainly wanted to explore the gray areas. We wanted to go into the more complex and nuanced moments about what it means to be American and what our relationship is with the flag.”

Eder’s roots date back to 1887, when the company made pillows, felt pennants, rag dolls and hunting jackets. The flag-making business was born in 1903. During the Great Depression, a small staff of highly skilled sewers began to handcraft U.S. flags. Eder Flag then began adding to its product line, providing many different types of flags, flagpoles and accessories. Today, the company is the largest manufacturer of flags and flagpoles in the United States. That fact, and its amazingly diverse workforce, created the ideal setting for the documentary, Wade said.

Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s two-time MVP and hero of the Bucks run to an NBA title in 2021, the franchise’s first in 50 years, got involved late in the latter stages of completing the film, she explained.

“He came on while we were editing, later in the game as a huge fan and a supporter of the film,” she said. “Obviously, he’s an immigrant himself, plays for the Bucks and is a Milwaukeean.”

Wade noted that SugarRay, a flagpole production manager at Eder Flag, was born and raised in Milwaukee, has pride in his work but doesn’t fly an American flag at his home because, as a Black man, he doesn’t feel he’s always had the opportunities others have had.

He states in the film: “I definitely love this country, but it doesn’t always love me back.”

As such, the only flag he feels comfortable flying is a Milwaukee Bucks flag.

“For this and other reasons, Giannis became part of this, but it is while we were late in the editing process.”

The film has been nominated for several awards and is being featured this week at the DOC NYC Film Festival, the country’s largest documentary film festival. It’s also a nominee for Best Short Documentary Film by the Critics Choice Association.

The documentary will also air on the on the National Geographic network on Dec. 8 and Disney+ on Dec. 21 and is being shown at leading film festivals in addition to being optioned to Mark Gordon for consideration to produce it as a Broadway musical.

“It’s a thank you to the factory workers, the flagmakers and their families and friends but it’s also to celebrate this extraordinary community,” Wade said of what she described as a “sneak preview” of the film, which was completed in September.

“Milwaukee is such an interesting city and it has that Midwestern friendliness and this incredible food because it is a quite diverse population with lots of different people living peaceably. It’s really for everyone to celebrate how beautiful the community is.”