Digging at the Core of Capitalism, ‘American Factory’ Is an Understated Look Into Globalisation and the Challenges of Integration
In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.
Director: Julia Reichert & Steven Bognar
Country: United States
Language: English & Mandarin
Runtime: 110 Minutes
Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, American Factory, is an exploration of capitalism, communist propaganda and the moral conflicts of globalisation. The film raises ethical and moral questions about the two largest economies of the world, acknowledging that nobody may have the answers to them just quite yet.
Following the closure of the General Motors assembly plant in Dayton, Ohio, Fuyao Glass from China moves in. Initially, the new partnership inspires optimism within the community, bringing the promise of new beginnings and jobs. However, the Americans and the Chinese quickly start clashing as they struggle to reconcile cultures, work ethics and management styles.
“You can joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you. As long as you are not doing anything illegal, you’re free to follow your heart. America is a place to let your personality run free,” says a Chinese representative during a cultural briefing to fresh off the boat Chinese workers. The entire documentary film then goes on to disprove this illusory freedom.
Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have spent several years working on this documentary and refer to those involved as “members of their community”, living just 25 minutes away from the plant. Their prolonged involvement in this project fosters a sense of trust between those involved, which is translated into the unravelling of characters on screen.
With the storytellers being so attached to the community, I expected a biased undertone in the presentation. However, this film successfully stays clear of bias and does a stellar job of presenting a collection of objective perspectives. Everyone has equal exposure, screen time and scope to make their case. Bognar and Reichert deliver a balanced tale without attempting to establish any preconceived notions in the narrative. They allow the film to organically take its form and develop through the eyes of all those involved.
A large part of the documentary is dedicated to establishing differences between the American and Chinese workers. In this cross-cultural portrayal, both groups are shown to have very different work ethics. In the unforgettable scene picturing the shop floor of the Chinese headquarters of Fuyao, the workers are seen in a military-like roll call while their American counterparts watch on with aghast faces. Another shocking scene worth mentioning is of a Chinese woman perched on a mountain of shattered glass, with no protective gear except thin gloves, as she sorts through millions of glass pieces.
Conversely, with the American side of Fuyao, Americans are shown complaining about the removal of their lunchroom and low wages. One worker is even shown refusing to carry out fork lifting duties as it goes beyond the safety permits, while others are shown with numerous workplace injuries. It is through these stark juxtapositions that viewers are given an insight into the large disparity between the two mentalities, highlighting the threshold of what these workers are willing to put up with.
However, it does not stop at only exposing differences. It offers a balanced view by also rallying similarities. Workers are seen forming intimate bonds with each other, despite the language barrier. In these heartwarming and vulnerable moments, everyone is bound together by humanity, which is a large theme of the documentary. Even the superiors are captured in reflective moments which humanise them, without taking the easy way out of villainising them.
The success of this venture comes from its ability to resonate with its viewers. The cinematography and music have a large part to play in this feat. Within the first five minutes, many haunting visuals of the workers and their environments successfully set the scene, as the nuance of every emotion is captured. The cinematography is paired with riveting symphony music. The two coming together is a perfect audio and visual treat which drives various tones throughout the film.
Boghar and Reichert subtly question the responsibility corporations have towards the community, without blaming any one person. It confronts how dispensable the human workforce potentially is without invalidating the necessity of the human touch. This feature documentary dabbles in the grey area of globalisation and creates a much needed conversation between two of the world’s biggest superpowers about the line between humanity and productivity.
Watch American Factory on Netflix here>>