• Interviews

Docs: Sean Claffey’s “Americonned” – Following the American Dream

In the new film documentary Americonned, filmmaker Sean Claffey explores the tragic, destabilizing effects of income inequality on every level of society as his cameras follow five subjects over four years, recording their struggle to find the American dream. But the film also offers hope, talking to experts who look back through history at similar critical moments of instability, remembering significant labor movements that were born in such times. Claffey spoke to us on Zoom about his film, which also follows the recent David vs Goliath battle between fired Amazon worker Chris Smalls and the company that tried to stop him from unionizing their workers for the first time.


Where did the idea come from to make a film about the upward redistribution over the last 40 years of over $50 trillion from the bottom 90% to the top 1%?

My good friend Dave Pederson, who was the producer on Supersize Me, came to me with an idea about doing something on poverty. Having a family that immigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in the twenties – that were able to ascend to the middle class when all the labor protections were put in place – and watching that path to middle class be eroded year after year, I knew something had to be done about that.

What surprised you the most when you began making the film?

We knew there was a problem, but we didn’t realize how bad it was. Now, 45% of Americans between 18 and 65 make a median wage of $10.50 an hour. Suicide rates are going up, drug abuse and alcoholism is going up and it all leads back to people working hard – 40, 50 or 60 hours a week – and still, every week they’re just digging a hole they’re not able to get out of.

How does your film remain hopeful?

We have a helpful message that we’ve done this before. We have gone from high levels of income inequality and built the middle class after that. We show examples, like one female union welder who is in her fourth year in that trade and she’s only 24 and just bought a house. So we know how to do it. We also follow Chris Smalls, who went up against the most powerful employer in the world, Amazon, who spent $25 million to try and crush that union, and it was just him (Smalls) and seven people sitting around two card tables and a tent – and they won!

So, Jeff Bezos is one of the villains of this story?

We point out that he made $13 billion in one day and he can’t pay his people enough to survive. He’s standing in for many other companies too. But Amazon has these massive warehouses and if you go to the bathroom too many times, because you might have to walk five or ten minutes, they dock your pay. He could transform the middle class overnight and still be incredibly rich.

How much of an emotional toll did it take to watch your film subjects struggle and not really be able to help them?

We traveled about 32,000 miles across the states, and we could have made five films with all the footage we shot. It was hard on our whole team because we’re empathetic and you do become very attached to people when you really follow their heartbreak and suffering. But I really believe people are waking up, as it’s obvious there’s something very wrong.

Does your own interest in social justice as a filmmaker come from your experience as the son of immigrants?

It definitely stems from that. I just have this sense that a lot of people just need a little leg up. As a society, we often discard people who are struggling, but here is a crazy statistic for you. Around 70% of all people who get government assistance in the states work full-time, and 40% of all homeless people work full-time, with 70% of homeless people having worked in the last six months. It was not easy to tell their stories, but they’re suffering much more than we are and we’re all hoping for change.

Americonned will open theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities on June 9 with a VOD release in the US and Canada to follow on major streaming platforms on June 13.

*You can also make a donation to be shared by the families featured in the film on a Go Fund Me page set up by the website www.americonned.com