by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: Though I wouldn’t apply the word “spoiler” to a documentary, I do discuss the final scenes of the film in some detail.
With great fanfare, Fuyao, a major Chinese manufacturing company, purchased a recently closed automobile factory in the rust belt town of Moraine, Ohio a few years after the Great Recession. The project was promoted as an opportunity to rejuvenate the quickly declining manufacturing rates in the area, and promote cooperation between Chinese and American economic interests. The consequences of what happened next, beyond the glimmering corporate press releases, is documented in Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s fascinating, thorough, and impressively constructed American Factory. The film cross-cuts through meetings between executives, vapid company promotional events in both the U.S. and China, and most importantly, the effects that this has on the workers themselves. The Chinese employees moving to Ohio are briefed on what they can expect from their new American coworkers with fearful and absolutist rhetoric; they are told that the American perceptions of self-confidence, and what’s lightly termed a disinterest in abstract thought, will make critiquing their work impossible if not sandwiched between hyperbolic praise. Meanwhile, the American employees, many of whom are long-struggling workers who are making a fraction of what they made before the recession, are miffed by how much their Chinese colleagues seem to work, without complaint or comment, through long hours and weekends. The culture clashes seem surface-level at first, largely spurned by mutual overgeneralizations and the language barrier.
But then, something more serious begins to take hold: some of the American employees have begun discussing unionizing. Fuyao executives, particularly the company’s CEO, Cao Dewang, have long feared this possibility, and have instructed their U.S. counterparts to quickly crush any possible movement on this front. The Chinese floor workers see the Americans’ discontent over their conditions as just another sign of Western entitlement; one is flabbergasted that they would actually have a problem with a seven-day workweek. Yet the efforts to organize continue to grow, and it’s clear that this isn’t going away soon, no matter how much company management rants, raves, and threatens to the contrary. The question of whether or not this will end in actual unionization is another one altogether, as American Factory captures these events unfolding with a genuine sense of surprise and discovery. It seems as if Bognar and Reichert couldn’t have possibly predicted exactly what would happen when they turned their cameras to Fuyao’s new American projects, and they let the events proceed without a sense of undue specificity. We see it all, thanks to their almost comically high levels of access: the Fuyao top brass were eager to have extensive film footage of this undertaking, as they couldn’t possibly have foreseen how this would play out, either. Simply put, this is a detailed chronicle of the effects of an unrestrained capitalism on a worldwide scale. The budding friendships formed between some of the American and Chinese employees suggest that they would be quite capable of getting along well, but they’re all being let down by hard drive of their superiors, who fear anything that could get in the way of corporate profits.
It all comes down to that, really. American Factory is a shrewd and smart look at the human beings at the center of this story. Everyone’s here to do a job and make a living, even through the differences in how they approach that idea, and how they perceive each other’s work ethic. Another tremendous benefit of Bognar and Reichert’s free-flowing approach is that we can see a fascinating collage of images and perspectives that reveals just how complicated this entire ordeal has been from top to bottom. The film is at its best when it simply follows the working people who are caught within this, regardless of nationality or background, and the most interesting thing to see is how they each respond and react. It almost seems a revolutionary act in and of itself to observe these individuals, because as the movie runs through the past, present, and future of this snapshot of industry, we know that forthcoming massive changes are on the horizon. Soon, there will be no humans performing these jobs at all, as a closing montage of new robots on formerly populous factory floors reminds us. That’s why it feels so timely for this film to be made now. It’s a stark reminder that, while we can’t realistically expect things to remain the same forever, and that reacting with hostility to change will only make things worse, we must think of this, first and foremost, as something that is affecting the structures of work and employment on a fundamental level, and that means great impact on the many people who perform that work.