THE STORY – 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.
THE CAST – Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert
THE TEAM – Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
By Christopher Cross
With tensions constantly high about American jobs being available for American workers, there’s something to be mined out of foreign businesses coming in and taking American jobs. That’s what makes “American Factory” all the more interesting. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert present a case study on foreign businesses and how cultures can clash in the workplace. A distressing take on the ways different countries operate in the job sector, and how difficult it can be for businesses and employees to meet halfway.
When the GM plant in Dayton, Ohio is shut down for good many are left without jobs and no hope for the future. That is until a Chinese billionaire CEO comes in and purchases the plant and turns it into a car glass factory. Along with that comes a bunch of new job opportunities for those in the community, as well as a large number of Chinese immigrants who have come to work for the company. What starts as a promising start to Chinese-American relations and a future for working-class Americans ends up as a dreary look at the ways the bottom line of a business is logically draining Americans of job opportunities.
Bognar and Reichert navigate a very tricky subject and sensibly place the focus on unionizing within America. With less-than-adequate wages and poor working conditions, it only makes sense that the idea of a union would float around any job. It’s how the union proposition manifests and how it is reacted to by those in charge of the factory that makes “American Factory” an absolutely crushing film. There’s a very close look at the mentality behind unionizing from both Chinese and American perspectives, with any overlap of ideals landing on the financial side of things. The union angle is a particularly interesting one because it shows how change requires help from both the inside and the outside – and how the inside will almost always want to stomp it out.
Seeing how the work ethic and expectations differ between American and Chinese employees is one of the many circumstances surrounding the unionizing of employees in the factory. A scene early in the film has the American management team heading to China to see how they operate their factories. Efficiency, extended work hours, and a very homogenized work ethic comes as a culture shock to many of them there, but they try to pull what they can out of the visit and bring it back to the American factory workers. And it doesn’t work out. Why it doesn’t work out is one of the other fascinating components of the documentary.
Watching cultures clash is one thing, but seeing how it affects the livelihood of the employees is something else entirely. There’s a level of empathy for both the Chinese and American workers, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why a corporation would care more for their bottom line than their employees. However, what’s most compelling are the individuals that we follow throughout the documentary. Whether it’s people pro-union or anti-union, there’s a level of empathy that is derived from spending time with them. How the Americans interact with their fellow Chinese co-workers (and in some cases, bond with them), is about the only brief time when smiling is likely. Much of the film is spent shaking your head at work practices and the moral ethics of running a business that just wants to make money, regardless of the cost to the humans involved.
The difficulty with a documentary like this is mostly trying to illuminate both Chinese and American workers without pointing the finger at one’s culture over the other. One can see how years of working underpaid and overtime with very little time to spend with one’s family can be heartbreaking. But that’s also an American perspective on an outside culture. One could also see having two days off a week and working less but being able to afford luxuries is a sign of a lazy worker. Bognar and Reichert feel like masters of empathy when conveying each side. Sure, there’s some fun to be had with the culture shock and there’s plenty of reason to be legitimately shocked, but the ultimate message isn’t to blame one side over the other. It all stems from business practices and the orders coming from the top. The reason it becomes so hard to watch is because it’s a relatable issue that many working-class Americans struggle with regardless of foreign intervention. The business practices are what are in the crosshairs, not the people who have long suffered from them. They’re the ones we focus on and feel for throughout the film.
There isn’t going to be much this year that rivals “American Factory” in terms of its direction. This is a movie where all its moving parts come together to provide both sympathetic and infuriating moments within the film. There’s nothing to trim. If anything, it’s a fairly straightforward movie that occasionally feels like it needs some more time spent with the individuals affected. But already pushing close to two hours, “American Factory” is a robust and neatly packaged movie that highlights a current concern in the American workforce – while doing a fantastic job at showing both sides of the equation.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A robust look at unions in America and the culture clash that is currently happening and affecting American jobs.
THE BAD – A little too brief with individuals affected by the business practices.