AMERICAN FACTORY (2019)
Documentary. Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar
After documenting the closing of the General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio just over a decade ago, filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar return to the site where 2,000 people lost their jobs for an unlikely sequel to the Oscar-nominated short film “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” A lot has happened to this tight-knit community since the automotive giant shut down. Former employees lost their homes, cars, and social position. So, what happens when the Chinese auto glass maker Fuyao reopens the plant six years later? “American Factory” examines the differences in work ethics, mindsets, and cultures in the first film from President and Mrs. Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and Participant Media.
Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang began his career in the glass industry in the early 80s and in 1987 he established the Fuyao Group in Fuzhou, China. It became one of the world’s largest automotive glass suppliers branching out with production bases around the world including Germany, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Referred to as Chairman Cao throughout the documentary, the entrepreneur is seen making several trips to Dayton to oversee the opening of Fuyao Glass America which employed 2,000 US workers, many of them former GM employees, to work side by side with 200 experienced Chinese workers who left their families and country behind to spend two years getting FGA up and going.
Filmmakers Reichert and Bognar are given remarkable access to Chairman Cao and both the Chinese and American workers who are as different as night and day and not just culturally. The Chinese are hard workers who never complain. They take pride in their work and never question the decisions by management. In one scene, a supervisor at the Fuyao plant in China explains to a visiting American supervisor that the Chinese work 12-hour days with only 2 days off per month. The Americans work eight-hour shifts with a 30-minute unpaid lunch and two 15-minute paid breaks. And while some Americans take pride in their work, most are just there for the paycheck which in this case is $12 per hour. At GM many of these employees were making $29 an hour. After being unemployed for six years, many of the US workers seem grateful for having a job but as time goes on gratitude is replaced by resentment and the Americans begin to complain about broken microwaves, Chinese videos playing in the breakroom, and the lack of safety conditions.
It would be very easy for the documentary to villainize the Americans who at times seem ungrateful, unmotivated, and unsatisfied. One employee is seen walking through the warehouse holding up a sign calling for the Americans to unionize. He’s met with applause and escorted out to the parking lot by security where he comments, “Sometimes you just have to be Sally Field” referring to her role in the 1979 film “Norma Rae.” Despite these scenes, the audience is left feeling empathy for both cultures with no bad guys. The Chinese have a different work ethic and throughout “American Factory” they seem to be doing as much as possible to accommodate the US workers.
When one of the Chinese supervisors suggests to Chairman Cao that they renovate the lobby with artwork of The Great Wall of China, he quickly shoots down the idea explaining he named the company Fuyao Glass America to make the US workers feel at home and therefore only American imagery should be used to adorn the walls, citing the phrase “When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do.” Cao comes across as a fair but shrewd boss who doesn’t hesitate when he’s told that some workers will be laid off as they are replaced by automated equipment. It’s a business move that points to a bleak future for workers. Still, the Chairman invested half a billion dollars in the Dayton plant putting over 2,000 people back to work to make money but also to improve relations between the Chinese and Americans or at least their perceptions. The documentary doesn’t show how Cao is one of the biggest philanthropists in China donating hundreds of millions to charity.
“American Factory” has a few bright spots as relationships are formed by some of the Americans with their Chinese counterparts. They eat together, relax together, and refer to each other as brothers. It’s the perspectives of both sides and the one on one interviews that really make this documentary soar.
When a group of American workers is flown to China to visit the Fuyao mothership it turns into an eye-opening experience. The Chinese seem happy and celebrate their employment by enjoying company dinners filled with elaborate songs and propaganda about being happy and working hard. Back in Ohio workers complain and push to unionize which could jeopardize the future of the American plant.
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar deliver a compelling look at two cultures working together in a world that continues to accelerate at incredible speed. The documentary serves as a warning about the future while offering hope in the form of building alliances rather than building barriers.
(3 ½ stars)
Opening today in select theaters and streaming on Netflix