Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Higher Ground Productions/Participant Media/Netflix
Not Rated 1 hour, 55 minutes
With American Factory, Michelle and Barack Obama’s film company Higher Ground Productions makes an auspicious debut. A collaboration with Participant Media and Netflix, the thoughtful, affectingly personal, yet finally unsettling documentary was released into the theaters in August and now streams on Netflix.
American Factory, in a sense, picks up where married directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert left off with their 2009 film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. That film aired on HBO and was nominated for an Academy Award that year for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The directors reference the original documentary, which recorded the shuttering of the GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, in 2008, in American Factory’s prologue.
The long-time Dayton-area residents, having invested in the plant’s story, understandably trained their cameras there when Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao established their first American plant in the old GM facility in 2014. The trust they earned with American workers helps the filmmakers gain broad access to the workers, owners, and managers to examine this novel experiment in cross-cultural capitalism.
When GM closed, 10,000 people lost their jobs. The local workforce, many of whom have been laid off for a long time, initially greeted the Fuyao shop opening with enthusiasm. Mature African American furnace off-loader Bobby, who had been out of work for a year and half, speaks for many when he says Fuyao “is the best game in town.”
It doesn’t take long, however, for the American workers to realize their union wages aren’t coming back. An African American mother, glass inspector Shawnea, is typical. At GM, she earned $24 an hour. Her Fuyao salary is $12.84 an hour. As American Factory opens, forklift operator Lynn, a mature white woman, is living in her sister’s basement and struggling, she says, “to get back to the middle class.”
Viewers will be very familiar with the challenges facing downsized workers, but what we learn about the Chinese workers is revelatory. They learn in tutorials what to expect living in their new, alien land. “America,” they are told, “is a place to let your personality run free as long as you’re not doing anything illegal. You can even joke about the president.”
But their instructor informs his countrymen that Americans “dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives.” And the trainer also wants his charges to remember: “Everyone who grows up in the US is overconfident. Americans love being flattered to death.”
Hired to supervise the new plant, American managers, trying to encourage US laborers to adapt the Chinese work ethic, travel to China’s Fujian Province to learn how company owner Chairman Cho Tak Wong wants things done.
The managers’ experience is as eye opening for them as it is for us. The company’s efficiency and success depend upon the Chinese laborers adhering to a rigid military discipline, with maybe one or two days off each month. Obligated to go where the company sends them, they often spending long periods away from their families.
In one of the documentary’s more affecting moments, furnace engineer Wong He reflects about how this hardship impacts him. “When all is quiet, in the middle of the night,” he says, “I miss my family.”
Some surprising friendships emerge within the factory across cultural lines, but the economic styles don’t mesh, prompting safety concerns and labor strife.
The intimacy with which the directors portray all at this drama’s center distinguishes American Factory. All—even Wong—are treated fairly and sympathetically, allowing each character’s essential humanity to shine through.
The directors’ filmmaking trusts viewers to reserve judgments before reaching conclusions. Consider this surprisingly candid revelation from Wong: “Have I taken peace away and destroyed the environment? I don’t know if I’m a contributor or a sinner.”
The documentarians’ sympathies ultimately reside with the workers, however. Union supporters will be upset to learn Fuyao paid consultants from Labor Relations Institute $1 million to suppress efforts to unionize the plant. And it’s alarming to learn that up to 375 million workers globally will need to find new jobs due to automation by 2030.
Accented by the melancholy trumpet sounds of Chad Cannon’s musical score, Reichert and Bognar’s evocative, lingering closing shot underscores the film as an eloquent dirge for workers leaving the factory.
Chris Byrd writes from Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in America, Sojourners, and the National Catholic Reporter.