'American Factory' Review
This is real life, and there are no easy answers.
When I heard that American Factory would be the first project released by the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions partnership with Netflix, I knew this would have to be good. But film makers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's documentary about the Chinese takeover of an abandoned GM plant in Dayton, Ohio eclipsed any expectations I had going in. Enveloped within this exploration of labor, trade, and the challenges of globalization is a stunning narrative of humanity. As is life, the story is hopeful, tragic, messy, and yet remarkably simple all at the same time.
When Fuyao industries first came to Dayton, Ohio it was like a godsend. We see not only a community still reeling from the aftermath of the 2008 crash, but we get to glimpse inside the lives of those affected. Statistics become individuals whose lives were completely uprooted. There is a middle aged woman forced to move into her sister’s windowless basement. A man who worked at GM for 20 years who suddenly found himself unemployed overnight. Yet, in spite of so much devastation, there is hope. They never give up on their “American dream.” It is that hope that keeps them going, but also what blinds them from picking up on the challenges that lie ahead.
Almost from the moment of Fuyao’s arrival to the stage, the signs that this may not be the match made in heaven Daytonian’s are so desperately counting on are there. Underneath the necessary pleasantries and collaborative rhetoric, fundamental questions about the identity of the company go largely ignored. How will the workers overcome language barriers? What does success look like? How will management reconcile the production demands of the Chinese leadership with the labor standards of the American workforce? Is such a thing even possible? I often found myself wondering whether it was management's naïve optimism or unfortunate ignorance that these questions were not answered.
What made this film so compelling was the attention to detail. A comment about an emergency alarm switch serves as a poignant illustration of cultural differences. The final scene of the movie is comprised of alternating shots of a crowd of workers at the Fuyao factories in China and the US. The harmonious, homogenous group in Fuqing exits the factory in a synchronized flow reminiscent of a choreographed dance. This contrasted with the jumbled, diverse mashup of people in Dayton, each moving to the beat of their own drum, serves as a powerful symbol of collectivist vs individualist culture. And, perhaps most significant is that every player in this story is given a moment to share their point of view. Even the billionaire Chairman of Fuyao, a character who could so easily be painted the villain of this story, is given a moment of reflection. In a heartbreaking, but mind opening moment of reckoning, he asks himself “am I a contributor or a sinner?” Bogart and Reichart masterfully humanize and offer perspective at every level of this story without losing sight of the very real ways that corporate messengers manipulate workers in order to keep them from unionizing, exploiting them, and forcing them into an impossible choice between their rights and their livelihoods.
I wanted to know if the film resonated with other people as much as it had with me, so I went to my friend Jenny. Jenny is Chinese and also happens to have a PhD in Intercultural Communication. She works to build collaborations and dialogues between Chinese and American scholars, so I was eager to know what she thought of the film.
"If people watch with an open-mind,” she told me, “they will see that there is no right or wrong. There is no one country or system that is better than the other. There are just differences deeply rooted in culture, history, and different stages in the Industrial Revolution.”
She highlighted the issue of workers unions, a major theme in the movie.
"In the documentary, unionizing is a controversial issue, but it actually means different things in the US vs. China,” she explained. “In China, a workers union is simply the vehicle to organize social events for employees to cultivate morale, and help solve personal/family issues for employees so they can better focus on their work. In the US, it does help protect the rights of the workers, but we have to admit that it also comes with problems, like inefficiency and communication barriers.”
For me, our conversation underscored the importance of taking different perspectives into account, and also the inherent challenges of globalization, like language barriers. How often are we communicating with the same words without realizing that they have different meanings across cultures?
There are so many messages rolled into one in this film, but it is not overbearing. The filmmakers put their faith in the viewer, offering a complex and full story without tying it up nicely in a bow for us. Because this is real life, and there are no easy answers.