For many people outside of Michigan, Henry Ford is presented simply with his most relevant facts: founder of the Ford company, inventor of the assembly line and the person who shaped the auto industry into what it is today. But for Michiganders, Henry Ford is more dimensional, a man with just as many flaws as gifts. This duality of his character is something that Ann Arbor Film Festival film “10 Questions for Henry Ford” seeks to address and to grapple with.
The film is framed quickly: Ghosts are real and an unnamed interviewer is asking the ghost of Henry Ford, played by John Lepard (“Scream 4”), ten questions. The opening sequence, in which Ford critiques the inefficiency of his own funeral, is disarmingly funny, and Lepard maintains some of that charm even as the film moves through more difficult topics.
Made with a mix of archival footage, recited documents and scripted scenes, the film demonstrates how Ford shaped — and was shaped by — the surrounding historical context. It’s a documentary of sorts, but delivered in a creative form conceived by director, writer, editor and producer Andy Kirshner (“Liberty’s Secret”). For the scripted sections, Kirshner used Ford’s writings and known beliefs to write dialogue that fit Ford’s own politics and principles — some of which was pulled word-for-word from Ford’s newspaper interview. The scripted scenes show a very alive-looking “ghost” of Ford as he travels to significant locations across Michigan — Greenfield Village, Fair Lane, Willow Run, the Detroit Institute of Arts (where “Detroit Industry,” Diego Rivera’s famous mural commissioned by Edsel Ford, lives) and more — to look for his son Edsel, who died shortly before him.
The format of the story is incredibly effective: The different questions act as natural stopping points in the narrative, ranging from questions about specific events in Ford’s life to broader questions about his choices and regrets. Many of the questions come back to Edsel, making their relationship a throughline in the film. Ford and Edsel were often at odds with each other, disagreeing about the company and politics, and Ford often publicly humiliated his son as a result. But in the film, Ford’s search for his son adds an empathetic (and perhaps idealized) dimension to Ford’s story.
The different locations provide a visually interesting backdrop that elevates the story beyond a typical documentary. Kirshner also cleverly edits in archival footage of each location, so you get to see how many things have changed in a hundred years. To see how these buildings have since been abandoned or worn down since the days of bustling industry is a stark contrast to Ford’s unwillingness to change and move beyond.
The other fundamental aspect of this film is the discussion of Ford’s rampant, well-documented anti-Semitism. For non-Michiganders, some of it might be new, but to most people from Michigan, these are things about Ford that they recognize: the serially published anti-Semitic conspiracy theories published in The Dearborn Independent, “The International Jew” and Ford’s connection to Nazi Germany. While earlier questions focused on Edsel, his company and his life, later questions are used to force Ford’s confrontation and explanation of these offenses. A late question asks Ford why he kept Hitler’s medal, leading to a sequence where Lepard’s Ford dances eerily in an empty hall, wearing a sash and the medal representing the highest Nazi honor given to foreigners, while the film shows images of the American Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden.
These sequences are the most powerful, contrasting a giant of industry with the horribly bigoted attitudes that he held and influenced. But “10 Questions for Henry Ford,” despite sinking into the harsh reality of Ford’s anti-Semitism, then returns to Ford and Edsel’s relationship for the final part of the film. Although the father-son dynamic is intriguing, pushing more importance on Edsel runs the risk of undermining Ford’s troubling intolerance. The fact that Lepard’s Ford shows little remorse for his beliefs, while probably true to Ford’s perspective, also diminishes the outsized role that Ford had in anti-Semitism in the U.S.
Throughout the film, Ford refers to people — especially workers, who he had an often antagonistic relationship with — similar to how he thinks about the inner workings of a car. He’s certain that he could’ve increased the efficiency of the long line to view his open casket; he talks about bringing in workers and making them into “interchangeable parts.” Whether this is because of Ford’s writings or because of Kirshner’s interpretation of it is hard to say, but it feels true to a portrait of a man who views people as tools — a man who is always trapped in the mindset of his life’s work.
Ironically, the format of “10 Questions for Henry Ford” fits a kind of efficiency that feels akin to Ford’s own philosophy: A 67 minute film, which splits precisely into sections that build off each other. Although it drifts into an idealistic view of Ford at times, “10 Questions for Henry Ford” is a documentary that uses creative techniques to keep it engaging. No matter how you feel about Ford, by the end, you’ll have learned something new about this giant in the United States’s history.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.