In many ways American Factory – directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, distributed via Netflix by Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions – is an illuminating film about globalisation, and a timely one: it can be read as an examination of the changing relationship between the two pre-eminent world ‘superpowers’, focusing as it does on a Dayton, Ohio factory owned by Fuyao, a Chinese manufacturer of automotive glass. Symbolically, the company took over a shuttered facility that was once owned by General Motors, one of the most ‘American’ of multinationals, while the boost Fuyao’s presence has given to the local economy and job market is made abundantly clear early on. However, if this microcosm invites you to ponder the extent to which the United States will be reliant on trade with China (or Chinese investment) in the future, it’s not something that the filmmakers themselves directly address.
Instead, the meat on the bone here is the resulting culture clash that occurs at the factory, a problem that becomes evident as soon as the apparently demanding Chairman of Fuyao, Cao Dewang, visits and starts asking for changes to be made to what will eventually become the reception area. His bluntness, and the icy tone of the translator in his entourage, could easily be interpreted as a display of power and status in front of the new charges: a flexing of muscle designed to show the Americans that they should merely be asking “How high?” when told to jump. As viewers, it’s hard not to side immediately with the exasperated men tasked with ensuring that the facilities match Cao’s vision while still adhering to American building and safety standards. Clearly they had an impossible job.
When the factory is up and running, the workers on the factory floor bear the brunt of the fallout of this uneasy commercial marriage, though some of those interviewed are happy with their lots and the documentary takes time to acknowledge some of the good relationships and friendships that are forged. That said, swift, sweeping changes to the American working environment affect the white-collar workers as well as the blue; we see disgruntled middle and upper managers as the Chinese method of operating becomes the norm, with Corporate Fuyao depicted here as being unwilling to bend, convinced that their way is the best and only way.
Eventually, it becomes clear that many American members of staff are being made redundant or are choosing to leave their jobs having long lost grips on the end of their tethers. Meanwhile, the future automation of the factory floor, revealed at the end of the documentary, makes for grim viewing to say the least – and it is obvious that there’s little to no job security in place even for the most loyal, hardworking employee. So, again it is easy to sympathise with the predicament of the majority of Americans here: their collective situation often seems untenable, morale is clearly low, some cannot afford to quit, wages ought to be higher, and gradually as a result of all this unionisation becomes a major issue, with the Chinese bosses and their (Chinese and American) charges vociferously discouraging the presence of a union in the workplace. Campaigning pro-union employees are dismissed and banned from the premises, with security staff given images of the ‘worst offenders’. At staff and public meetings, and in interviews with the filmmakers, many people eloquently discuss the situation and the importance of holding on to certain rights that have been guaranteed or fought for in the past.
It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure, but I’m left with the nagging feeling that American Factory does not tell the full story. Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have a great track record of making well-considered issues-based films, and so I am very wary of questioning the ethics of either director. However, as the credits rolled I felt the film hadn’t been even-handed in its approach; in terms of what is actually up there on screen there simply isn’t enough of an attempt to really understand the Chinese business practices on show. I understand why the film depicts American employees expressing shock when they happen upon workers at Fuyao’s HQ picking through piles of broken glass without decent safety equipment, but why not counterbalance by fully exploring the classroom-based learning that is also shown in China? Are a broad range of subjects covered in these classes or is it really just the racist propaganda that made it into the final cut?
The most negative and one-sided treatment is reserved for CEO Dewang, who in various (sometimes slightly comic) scenes comes across as being as impassive as a mountain, and with roughly the same level of personality as a hulking slab of rock, too. Granted any viewer can Google him to discover more should they wish to, but having been set up as the fall guy of American Factory – a hissable villain, no less – I began to wonder about him and his career. How did he arrived at this position within the company? Does he have a family? What do they think of him? What actually are his thoughts about the US, Americans and globalisation? Was enough access available in order to find out? I wonder whether more footage of a personable and measured Cao, seen wandering around his house near the end of the film, might have made for a more well-rounded film.
Regarding that sequence, I have concerns about a couple of shots that I found slightly suspicious, though my suspicion could well be without foundation. The first shows one of Cao’s artworks, an admittedly ostentatious piece featuring his likeness at the front of a tableau that portrays him as a heroic captain of industry and majestic leader; next, the filmmakers cut to a shot of Cao seemingly looking up admiringly, and proudly, at this work, which I took to be an overt dig at his vanity or an illustration of frightening self-belief. Yet we only see a frontal shot of the man gazing upwards, and I’m not 100% convinced he is actually looking at that same piece of art, though the edit clearly implies that he is. There were a handful of minutes remaining at this point, and maybe in the great scheme of things it’s a minor matter, but it is perhaps telling that I didn’t fully trust what I was seeing.
In depicting the problems faced by American employees in a situation that will undoubtedly become more common across the globe in the future, American Factory is a riveting watch, and it has the necessary compassion and understanding as these workers stand up for themselves. Other aspects of the film, as discussed above, are troubling at the very least. (3/5)