Director: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Cast: Cao Dewang, Dave Burrows, Jill Lamantia, John Gauthier, Shimeng He, Jeff Daochuan Liu, Sherrod Brown, Daquin “Leon” Liang
Watch American Factory online in the UK: Netflix UK
Back in 2008, Ohio-based filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar chronicled the closing of a key General Motors plant in small-town Moraine, Ohio, for their Oscar-nominated short The Last Truck. Six years later, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang announces plans to reopen the facility as Fuyao Glass America, giving some 2,000 of the town’s former factory workers their jobs back and supplementing the workforce with hundreds of skilled Chinese labourers, brought in from overseas. Despite hope and optimism on both sides, the stage is set for an epic culture clash, all of which is captured by Bognar and Reichert’s fly-on-the-wall cameras, with the Obamas coming on board as producers after the fact.
Throughout the course of the film, we meet a wide variety of characters on both sides, from Chairman Cao (a fascinating figure) and friendly worker Wong (who tries hard to adapt to the American way of life) to forklift operator Jill (who’s happy that she can finally afford to move out of her sister’s basement), and hapless manager Dave, who’s perpetually caught in the middle in his attempts to appease both sides. Eventually, battle lines are drawn when the workers decide they’ve had enough of the poor conditions and attempt to unionise, while an exasperated Cao declares that if a union comes in, he’ll shut the plant down.
Bognar and Reichert’s most impressive achievement is to let their story play out without ever taking sides, maintaining balanced viewpoints throughout. Part of that is down to Cao himself, who genuinely cares about the project but is frustrated by what he sees as American laziness, in that the US workers aren’t prepared to work the same punishing hours as their Chinese counterparts. To that end, the film takes on a wider, more global significance, as the relative merits of Chinese vs American workers can be extrapolated to the global economy in general.
It’s impossible to watch the film without marvelling at Bognar and Reichert’s extraordinary access – at one point they’re even allowed to film a seminar in which a company-paid Union Avoidance Consultant (his actual job title) tries to persuade the workforce not to vote for unionisation in an upcoming ballot. It’s a jaw-dropping moment that makes you wonder if the company higher-ups read the small print on what was and wasn’t permissible when filming. Similarly, it’s clear that Cao himself was firmly behind the project, given the amount of access he allows the filmmakers to his own comings and goings, although why he continues to do so when it’s clear the project isn’t going to be quite the success he’d hoped is something of a mystery.
As well as the increasingly gripping culture clash, Bognar and Reichert also depict notes of hope and optimism, primarily in the depiction of the touching relationships that evolve between the Chinese and American workers. One in particular is utterly charming, as an Ohio native invites his Chinese co-workers to come out to his ranch and shoot guns and ride his motorbike.
There are other highlights, most notably a cultural exchange trip, in which a group of Americans are taken to a Fuyao plant in China and are treated to things like propagandistic musical numbers extolling the virtues of Chinese working practices, while also being horrified at various health and safety violations.
If there’s a problem with the film, it’s only that there are perhaps slightly too many characters for any really compelling narrative arcs to emerge, but that’s a minor quibble at best. At heart, this is a consistently gripping and engaging documentary that presents a fascinating portrait of the American economy in microcosm.
American Factory is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.