American Factory

This particular documentary made lots of noises for several reasons. One of the key reasons was that it was the first film from Higher Ground Productions, the film company started by former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. Another reason meant it was filmed at the same General Motors plant where the director duo Stevel Bognar and Julia Reichert had filmed their earlier short film – The Last Truck-Closing of a GM Plant. It premiered at 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The new owner, Chinese company Fuyao granted permission to access its erstwhile GM plant as well as its Chinese plant. 



Ratings: 4/5
Director by: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Release Date: 21 August 2019
Available on: Netflix
Duration: 1h 50m
Genre(s): Documentary

In 2010, China had flexed its muscles and began an expansion spree bang in the middle of capitalist US, acquiring shut down American companies. Immediately in the aftermath of the great recession of 2008, several American companies were being bought over by the Chinese, so this one was no different. American workers feeling helpless and hopeless after their work being snatched away had also become de rigueur by then. What was different was that the Chinese took over the plant and started a wind shield factory there, hiring the American workers on the way along with numerous Chinese workers. Since the directors have used real time sound captured on the factory floor along with the conversation between workers, real narratives of workers recorded at their homes and real sounds of equipment and vehicles moving, it becomes a stark and objective take on the new normal. 

The film set a new tone for documentaries because the subject  (Fuyao Glass company) allowed complete access to all its facilities and people for shoot. You see a manager guiding Chinese workers about the American way of life, enjoy all you can but don’t do anything illegal  while here, he says. You can’t escape that chuckle when he describes the stereotypical American, even while travelling in Europe!

Role Reversal

The film is an overturned version of what we have seen so far- Americans hogging the limelight and watching over the Chinese, whereas here it is the other way round. We see Americans from the viewpoint of the Chinese and their perception. Amusing is when we see Americans working in the Chinese factory with some amount of trepidation clearly visible on their faces. The Chairman’s visit is replete with his efforts to merge with the queer combination of ethnicities, while also worrying about the unions and their interference. American supervisors are seen aghast at Chinese workers handling broken glass with normal gloves. Media gets wind of the unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment. But the management does not seem fair that workers complain about work. What is noteworthy is that what the Chinese find normal is unfair for the Americans. Unions have become a huge headache for the Chinese who thought appointing Americans would ensure smooth functioning of the factory, but it doesn’t turn as expected. Now Americans see their bosses demoted. They find things weird and decide to unite against what they perceive is the strange and unfair things the way Chinese were doing. Like someone being required to work for two person’s job. Not having any American of authority with whom they could talk to was a major roadblock. 

Viewers are in for some surprise to see the Chairman giving access to film some of the most confidential meetings, where he asks if the unions are making any noise. They seem aghast that a lot of things in the US are different from that in China (read- work hard and stay quiet). A vote taken goes in favour of the Chinese. The American workers feel let down by the workers, young ones especially, who they feel were scared to lose jobs. 

The film makers have had access to film at the China offices of Fuyao Glass. What makes it an interesting watch is the stark contrast between workers caught between the work culture of two different companies- the American General Motors and the new Chinese owners- Fuyao Glass America. On its way, the film shows you why the Chinese made huge strides in world business and how Americans can never be able to really understand that. And yet they don’t give up on the true American dream- of a white fence, good home and be treated with decency. Meanwhile, the film also reminds you that millions of people worldwide would need to look out for new kinds of jobs when they lose out to automation. There needs to be seen how people, governments and companies respond to these shifts. 

It took me some time to decide how I wanted to think and feel after watching this film. Though it provides no comment on either side is entirely objective, it definitely left me thinking about the lessons I imbibed but couldn’t articulate right away. 

Here is a trailer of an excellent documentary movie from Netflix:

Did you notice any corrections to be made on this page? Submit your feedback here. We will take the necessary action.