Sean Claffey – Director Tackles Income Disparity & Other Economic Travesties in his Doc Americonned
Updated: Jun 25
Director Tackles Income Disparity and Other Economic Travesties Through his Doc Americonned
by Brad Balfour
At CraicFest 2023, director Sean Claffey debuted his powerful doc Americonned. It offers commentary by various political and sociological experts and an examination of ordinary citizens’ lives in order to address the impact that super-capitalists – the one percenters – have on the world at large and on America in particular.
According to Americonned, pernicious power junkies and the super-rich suck the economic life out of the middle and working classes – while contributing little in return. The movie shows the struggles of American families to balance out the inequities through various means such as union organizing. With sympathy for middle-class workers, the film explores the outrageous attempt to color them as lazy. It addresses the notion that we must make sure workers are paid what they’re worth instead of being paid what’s minimally possible.
With more than 25 years in the film industry during which Claffey made features, industrial documentaries and commercials, he employs his experience to make a film which grapples with compelling and controversial issues. As Claffey explains in the following Q&A, he is drawn to emotionally challenging projects and embraces the rigors of getting the story right, even under the most arduous circumstances.
What made you crazy enough to make a movie like this?
I come from an immigrant Irish family that landed here in extreme poverty. There was a path to the middle class that existed then. It was helped greatly by unions. As I see that path erode more and more, it's really important that we fight back to keep it open. We need to keep people in the middle class from falling out of it. That's what made this country so amazing. America used to be the number one [home for the] middle class in the world. Now we're at number 12 and falling rapidly.
When you make a movie like this, do you consider what kind of an audience you're going after? Who do you think is the audience?
We were really focused on getting our message out to everyone, not one political party or the other. We looked at it and could see that both political parties really contributed to this fall. Maybe one more than the other. Certainly, one is now moving into an authoritarian position. So we called up both parties and we showed where they failed the working and middle class in this country.
When you planned this film, did you have an idea of how you were going to structure it and where you were going to go with it? Or did you just start shooting, figuring that you would tap into some lucky moments as we see in the film?
We definitely had a structure. We wanted to interweave several families who were suffering with the activists who are carrying on the fight. The experts basically tell the tale of how we got here and how we might get out of it. It did take left and right turns and U turns, though. Stories that we thought would work out led to dead ends. Others that we didn’t know would be anything actually became some of the major points of the film.
Was this planned before the 2020 election or during it? Did you decide to make it after?
We came up with this idea in 2009. I had three companies in the film business and lost all of them. We definitely saw that banks got bailed out and people didn't. So we started then but had a false start and ran out of money. Making these things is very difficult. But we started again in earnest about three and a half years ago.
Before the election, and before COVID, did you think that Trump was going to lose? Or was that a lucky break for you?
When he was first running a year before we were doing this, a friend of mine, a producer, bet me that he was going to win. She's from Italy. I was like, “No way. Absolutely not. Not in a million years. From a native New Yorker: we know his shenanigans here.” Yet he won. I was hoping that he wouldn't, but he did. Then by 2020, I was hoping again that he wouldn't win. The reason we got Trump is because we let down swaths of this country. They've been trying over and over again to make it but can't. When you try everything and still can't pay the mortgage – you lose your house, you lose everything – you start to get this mindset. I've spoken to many of those people who want to burn it all down.
One of the great lucky turns in this film is the situation with unionizing at Amazon. You had no idea how that was going to work out, but it really did work out in your favor. At what point did you know you wanted to try and follow it? At what point did you know, “Wow, we really hit a home run.”
I met Chris Smalls who organized the Amazon labor union in Staten Island before he ever thought of unionizing. They protested. Basically [Amazon] was making employees work without masks. People were getting sick and dying, so he stood up, He was a supervisor there and people were getting sick in the building and passing out. They’d just move them aside and put a new person in their place. So he started a protest long before the union. They thought about making a union. I was like, “Oh, there's a union thing going on in Bessemer. Let's all drive down.” We drove down with his whole team and we're in an Airbnb, but the local union wouldn't even meet with us. They snubbed us. When the team got snubbed, I was like, “Just start your own union.” I could see that it kind of clicked with them. But I want to say right here, that I didn't do it. They made the decision on their own. I might have been a spark, but they worked like 300, almost 400 days straight – seven days a week, three shifts. It was a huge effort.
There's always a challenge in making a documentary. There's an enormous amount of competition and, certainly, a lot of films that deal with left-of-center issues. I don't even like the terms left and right or progressive. Progress is not about standing still. Everything else is either standing still or going backwards. You have the challenge of convincing people that this is an initiative that concerns them without rubbing them the wrong way. Maybe it doesn't address the issues the way people think they should be addressed. How did you know that you want to continue this?
I was going to finish this film no matter what. COVID hit and it got really hard to make this film. We went around, risked our lives in the beginning of COVID not knowing what the outcome could have been. So the movie was getting made to the point where I was like, “If nobody picks it up, I will put it on YouTube.” Now, of course, you need to recoup your money; otherwise you'll go broke. But yeah – nothing was going to stop us from finishing the film.
Now that you’ve finished, what’s been the response? People seem to be getting attracted but you still want to get it into the biggest festival. What happened there?
The big festivals just flat out turned us down. You know, we take on Amazon in a negative way – it becomes the villain standing in for many other corporations. But you go around to the festivals and it's the Amazon documentary award, right? So do you think we even have a shot at that? Whether it's on purpose or subconscious or there subliminally. But we got very lucky and have gotten limited theatrical distribution. We're going to be in New York, DC, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. There are additional theaters that are asking us right now as we speak, for New Hampshire and Florida. After that, we're going to be streaming on many different platforms.
You've been getting good responses at festivals. The crowds come up to you. What do people want to do? Are they ready to finance the next film?
We've gotten great responses interestingly enough, from both sides of the aisle – conservatives as well as liberals and everything in between. Everyone knows something is wrong and we really expose it and dig down into the history. Once people see through it, you can't unsee it. There's a meticulous way it's being done. We expose that completely. Everyone wants the same thing – to have a house, a good job, and have their children do better than they're doing. The division is on purpose. But we're talking about somebody in a dress that's drinking a beer that they don't even like – that's becoming a divisive thing. When so much money is being stolen from the middle class, it’s all done on purpose. They pull it off – the think tanks – they think about it and push it out there. The talking points go out every Sunday night or Monday morning and you just hear it. They regurgitate stuff just to divide us against our own economic best interests. And they've been doing it for a while. They're really, really good at it.
Do you think it's part of your Irish experience or Irish tradition that you make a film like this and support the causes it supports?
I’ve always been a little rebellious. I don't have a problem standing up against powerful people for things my family has been doing for probably a lot longer than I even know, hundreds and hundreds of years. I grew up with that instilled in me: if something's not right, we need to stand up to it, no matter what. Because if we don't, then everyone else suffers.
You grew up here in New York? Have you been back to Ireland? Have you tapped into a lot of your Irish community?
I grew up in New York my whole life. I have definitely been to Ireland a bunch of times. I have family there. I'm part of that Irish American community and this year I got to help lead the parade as a New York City aide to the Grand Marshal. It's been an epic year for me personally.
What county are you from?
My family is mainly from Donegal but also the Midlands.
You’ve built up new bonds with different people. You've continued with your relationships with the Amazon people. What new relationships were built for you?
Finding the experts was challenging. But once we started getting a few of them, like Nick Hanna, they were amazing. He's a billionaire but he’s fighting for the middle class. He's really aligned on the whole thing. Once we got him, it was much easier to get the rest of them like Kurt Anderson and Jake Packer. We knew that we had to get the interview. So we hopped in my car, filled it up with camera gear and looked at the weather report. We have to get over the Rockies but there's a massive storm coming in Brooklyn. We drove 70 hours straight, only stopping to fill up for fuel and to eat, usually done at the same time. And we made it. We hit the Rockies just as snow started falling. Snow everywhere but we were able to get to Seattle where he was, and it really started the journey [of the film.] We drove 3,400 miles across the country traveling through 23 states. We really got a sense of people that are suffering and what’s actually on the ground. I don't think I quite understood that just being a New Yorker.
Was this the biggest challenge you've had in your life?
Biggest long-term challenge? When we started filming, we filmed a few people in New York but then my mom passed away right in the beginning. I was like, “Well, I'm either going to go into depression or we're going to finish this thing.” We drove up to Seattle and dedicated it to her and a couple of other people we lost during the filming. We ran out of money a bunch of times, burned up the credit cards multiple times and I almost missed my mortgage payment. It was intense with some really low lows. But it's getting out there. So it was well worth it.
Have you always meant to be a filmmaker or were there other things? Or did you just fall into this?
I started out in theater behind the scenes, as a technical director, set design. Then I switched over to film and got to work with some really great directors like Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and many, many others. I worked with some really bad directors, as well. Then I started doing TV pilots and whatever.
This type of film is really a calling – to expose injustice and shine a light on problems like this. Is this what makes you tick? Once you make a film like this though, does it mean that you’re either going to go further mad or you're going to change the course of the world?
I think you have a little of both. I have an idea for the next one. It's going to be about democracy and if you have a tool right now or whatever you can do [to maintain it]. The authoritarians are on the rise if we don't stop them. We can't wait for someone else to do it because no one's going to do it. It's got to be all of us.
You've done the festivals and met people. What is the best or most interesting experience you've had as a result of touring the festival circuit?
Having a full house, watching them cry, get angry, have hope and stand up and applaud. That made me think that it was all worthwhile.
What was the most interesting question you've had so far?
People don't really comprehend that this was all done on purpose – it was planned. I'm talking about the financial organizations [extraction of money] from the middle class. They're looked upon by a few tens of thousands of people as just something to extract from. Audiences are blown away by that. They want to know more about how we all let this happen and how do we not know about this?
It risks making you cynical because capitalism isn't going away. Can we fix capitalism?
The most important thing is democracy. We get confused with capitalism and democracy and when these are just economic systems. I think there should be a blending of them. If just extreme examples – if there's a depression, there should be more socialism. If there's a natural disaster, then we should turn the socialism up. If it's boom times, you raise taxes. There needs to be this constant balance. But most importantly, it needs to be a democracy for the path to the middle class that’s maintained. It will change with technology if we don't make it more fair. We talk about this in the film. Curt Anderson says, if we don't make it fairer now, with AI and robotics which is slated to take place, about 46 to 47% of all American jobs are at high risk. We're talking about doctors, accountants, radiologists. I mean, this is like the white-collar thing. What happened with NAFTA to the blue collar [workers] – it's still happening now. The CEO of IBM said that he's going to get rid of every single human job he can this year.
They can't get rid of film journalists. I'm sure of that anyhow. On that note, how do you envision things moving forward for you and for the future of America?
About half of Americans between 18 and 65 medium wage is $10.35 an hour. That’s insane. With most places in the country, you have to drive to work. How do you afford a car, rent and food on $10.35 an hour? You can't even buy a burrito. It's insane. The price of eggs is more than that. I’m going to keep fighting and exposing injustice wherever I can. And for America, we're at a turning point, we may swing authoritarian or fascist with these high levels of income inequality.
[This award-winning documentary opens theatrically in New York (Cinema Village), Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica Film Center) and major cities this June with a VOD release in the US and Canada on major platforms to follow. Not Rated/ 96 Minutes/ Feature Documentary/ USA]
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Photos © 2023 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.