Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar track the intersection of culture and capitalism in this intriguingly humanistic doc.
When Donald Trump got elected, one of his promises was to bring back American manufacturing from overseas. “We have the greatest companies anywhere in the world,” Trump said recently, according to the New York Times. “They’re all coming back now. They’re coming back to the United States.” But times have changed, especially after The Great Recession — industries are dying, foreign investment is rising, and the working conditions and wages we used to enjoy are all but gone. For documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, and their latest doc American Factory (the first release of Barack and Michelle Obama’s new Netflix-partnered distributor Higher Ground Productions), one seemingly-revitalized auto town is a case study for the hazards of this new school of economic renewal.
In Dayton, Ohio, an abandoned General Motors plant — whose shutdown was charted in their previous doc The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant — is purchased in 2015 by a Chinese auto glass company called Fuyao, in a beta test to see how well Chinese foreign investment will work out in the States. The workers are a mix of cultures — Chinese workers flown in to supervise the American grunts — all under the supervision of an enigmatic Chinese billionaire most refer to only as “Chairman.” In the beginning, there’s a tentative sense of optimism: American workers are thrilled to be back in the factory, several of whom worked at the plant back when it was GM’s, while the Chinese workers affect a modest detente with their American counterparts despite the language and cultural barriers.
But of course, something’s rotten in the state of Dayton, as culture clashes and whiffs of unionizing pit the American workers against their Chinese handlers, with a few workers splitting down the middle. Cornerstone cultural values collide: the Chinese think the American workers are lazy and inefficient, while the local employees caution against the flagrant disregard for safety regulations and the factory’s newfound predilection for workplace injuries. Some of the American workers are sent to China for a glitzy corporate seminar complete with eerie children’s choirs and energetic pop songs about how Fuyao is a titan of efficiency, while labor relations consultants implicitly threaten firings if they commit to forming a union.
As Dayton locals who’ve spent years charting the story of the town’s economic woes, Bognar and Riechert’s approach is as fly-on-the-wall as you could imagine. Their presentation is layered and deeply evocative, just pointing their camera to subjects and just letting them live on screen, with the aid of some helpful interviews. Some figures get additional focus, like Wong, a Chinese worker spending years away from his family to work at the plant and who slowly gains an appreciation for the freedoms inherent to America. There’s the usual Christopher Guest-ian comedy of manners: American and Chinese workers communicate through rough text-to-speech translations on their phone, or awkwardly go fishing together. Chinese supervisors explain the American ethos to their workers, sentiments which ring as quaint to a domestic ear: “They are very obvious… they dislike abstractions and theory in their everyday lives.”
Reichert and Bognar illustrate this as just part of the ebb and flow of late-stage capitalism.
And yet, as the screws tighten more and more, and tensions rise as American workers slowly realize the plant isn’t theirs anymore, the filmmakers take great care to humanize both sides of the story. Rightly, they’re firmly on the side of the workers: Fuyao supervisors rankle at the idea of unions to an almost cartoonish degree. In one delicious moment, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown sneaks in pro-union language to his opening ceremony speech, which sends management of both nationalities nervously scrambling (“I’m gonna have to kill a senator,” one exec half-jokes). But we at least see the cultural touchstones that lead to this clash of ideas — most notably the Chairman’s, who sees hard work and dedication as the sole purpose of life. Who needs to see your family more than twice a year? The company is your family, and you must give everything to it.
The workers’ only hope is to unionize, and the filmmakers treat the sparking tinder of revolution with suitable fanfare (courtesy of Chad Cannon’s droll, quirky score). “Someone’s gotta be Sally Field,” quips one worker, as a palpable feeling of optimism rings through the American workforce; people bring signs, chant, and honk their horns in solidarity. Depressingly, it turns out how you’d expect — it’s hard to play poker against someone holding all the cards — but Reichert and Bognar illustrate this as just part of the ebb and flow of late-stage capitalism. On a long enough timeline, the worker gets ground into the dirt, and supervisors will just keep crowing about efficiency.
In the final minutes of American Factory, Reichert and Bognar warn that all of this internecine conflict may not even matter in the long run: auto manufacturers are ready to automate them out of a job anyway. It’s a terrifying portent to be sure, a haunting capper to the doc’s interrogation of the pitfalls of globalization. Sure, jobs formerly outsourced are coming back to us, but they come with huge strings attached – strings we may not be able to cut.
American Factory is currently streaming on Netflix.