Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s documentary American Factory tells the story of a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. It follows workers and management, both American and Chinese, through the process of reopening the factory after the Fuyao glass company took it over in 2014. Reichert and Bognar’s 2009 Oscar-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant had previously covered the plant’s shutdown in the wake of the financial collapse. This unusual rebirth makes for a riveting inquiry into globalization — not just for these workers in Ohio, but across all American life.
Made with the participation of Fuyao Chairman Cao Dewang, the documentary has remarkable access to both the factory and the people there. When Dewang commissioned the film, he expected a positive PR effort. However, as it unfolds, we witness how American and Chinese work cultures clash. During an interview, a thoughtful Dewang declares: “The point of living is to work.” The Chinese style is efficient but unquestioning. The managers who come to train the American workers find them slow and difficult to work with. One telling detail is signage written in awkward English, as if the managers were not quite listening to the Americans on the team regarding this aspect of the operation.
Still, these overseers have sacrificed to come to Dayton, leaving behind their families in China for the snowy Midwest. Their American co-workers do their best to accommodate and welcome the Chinese engineers, taking them fishing and horseback riding. One even invites his foreign colleague to Thanksgiving dinner (where he shows off his guns). In turn, two American workers visit China at the behest of the company in order to better understand specific technical information and the Chinese approach to work.
The rank and file are hopeful at first, but gradually disappointed by low wages and questionable working conditions. When they threaten to unionize, Cao hires an anti-union firm to dissuade them. We see parallel shots of the workers organizing with the UAW and groups of managers in meetings discussing how to stifle their effort. A battle of signs, sloganeering, and posters ensues. One compelling subplot follows a woman who lost her home when the GM plant closed, who now hopes to regain her footing by working at the revived factory. Her hopes and subsequent disillusionment are emblematic of the workers’ greater struggle. The union ends up losing in a close vote.
The film’s shooting style dramatizes the factory itself, making motifs of its reflective surfaces and vast spaces. The camera moves continually between looming establishing shots of the industrial environment and portraits of the people at work. Reichert is a poet of the ordinary, expressing the dignity of every subject, from the Chinese millionaire who opens the factory, through layers of management down to the line workers. Reichert is a student of cinema verité, having learned from the likes of Jonas Mekas and Frederick Wiseman, as well as her participation in a feminist film collective. The filmmaking does not advocate; it shows, never tells, and poses many more questions than it can answer. Some disturbing realities about the struggle for dignity in work emerge from what we witness.
American Factory is being released by Netflix in association with Higher Ground Productions, a media company launched by Barack and Michelle Obama. (Reichert and Bognar had already finished filming when the Obamas approached them about distribution.) “Our goal isn’t just to make people think, said Michelle Obama, “we want to make people feel and reach outside of their comfort zone.” Future projects in the works include a film about Frederick Douglass and a documentary scrutinizing how the departments of Energy and Agriculture have been affected by the Trump administration. As their first release, American Factory can be seen as a mission statement of sorts. We’ll see how further films tackle contemporary and historical American life.
American Factory releases on Netflix and in limited theaters August 21.