Review: American Factory (2019)


American Factory is a remarkable work of observational filmmaking. The fly-on-the-wall documentary from Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, recently released on Netflix as a part of Barack and Michelle Obama’s distribution deal with the company, follows a former General Motors factory in Dayton, OH that is reopened by the Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao. It examines the ways that Chinese and American cultural and economic interests intersect and collide, demonstrating the profound contradictions of modern capitalism and the global economy in the process.

There is a scene about 20 minutes into American Factory that perfectly demonstrates the film’s savvy understanding of these dynamics. The chairman of Fuyao makes a visit to the refurbished factory in Dayton and inspects the front-facing offices alongside the president of Fuyao America and other executives. He smiles as he looks over the room, but then notices a fire alarm about eight feet off the ground in the middle of the wall, and tells his interpreter that they should move that out of the way so they can redecorate the room properly. 

The American president hears the interpreter translate this for him and lowers his voice, trying to be reasonable: “That’s regulation height.” The message is relayed to the chairman and he nods but says that they should move it to the far corner of the room or beside the counter at knee level so that it’s out of the way and less of an eyesore. The American president again says that it’s regulation,that he didn’t choose to put it there and that it’s the law, but he says this with less certainty. The chairman again nods and, through the interpreter, tells him that he should make sure he does things right the first time so they don’t need to waste money doing it again. The American president nods and says he’ll look into what he can do about it, his voice trailing off as he says it.

This scene is a microcosm of the film as a whole, capturing the ways that American and Chinese conceptions of what is good, efficient work do not overlap, even if the economic goals of the two nations are aligned. The entirety of American Factory documents this cultural integration and the tensions inherent in such an encounter. These tensions give the film its dramatic spark, as Chinese expectations and efficiency come up against American individualism and regulation. However, the observations also show that modern conceptions of the world are not entirely accurate.

For instance, America is hailed as a haven of business that’s free of regulation and red tape. Conversely, China is seen as the ultimate bureaucracy, where massive state ministries control all movement of capital and resources. But American Factory proves that these stereotypes are not accurate. China is technically communist, but also has an industry where the state and private corporations work hand-in-hand, essentially removing all red tape and regulations from efforts to grow the economy. America, on the other hand, has a diminished but still active unionist culture that runs counter to the greed of global industrialists.

In American Factory, we see all the ways that clichés are discarded or reinforced during the economic and social interactions between the Chinese and American workers. Some encounters are surprisingly funny, such as when some American workers visit China to see the Fuyao New Year’s celebrations. Their befuddlement at the efficiency of the Chinese workers comes through in every shot of their bewildered faces, but even better is the horror turned to glee that comes out as they watch the Chinese workers put on an incredibly elaborate stage show as part of the celebrations, which includes rap songs, dances, and a mass wedding.

Back in America, the scenes are less jolly, especially once Fuyao brings in union busters to dissuade the disgruntled American workers from unionizing. In the scenes in China, we watch as the Fuyao union meets and celebrates the high standard of living for the company workers. But once we’re back in America, unions are spoken of in disgust. The film plainly shows the contradictions that exist in this industry and within any company operating across national boundaries.

In some of the film’s best moments, Fuyao incredibly gives Reichert and Bognar access to their behind-closed-doors meetings, letting us watch as the Chinese supervisors talk about exploiting American confidence and laziness. Most shockingly, the supervisors say the quiet part loud, declaring that they all know that Chinese people are better than American people, so they need to take advantage of that fact. In other moments, we see Chinese workers betray their emotions as they complain about the slow pace and high pays of the American workers. Ostensibly they speak out of disgruntlement over the inefficient workplace, but their jealousy of the freedoms of their American coworkers seeps through on their faces and in the way that their comments circle back to money and the unfair fact that they don’t enjoy the same freedoms in China.

Through it all, the filmmakers hold back and stick to the approach of direct cinema. They don’t pry with too many invasive questions or try to manufacture plotlines around individual characters. Instead, they simply watch and observe and make sure they document every disagreement, every private meeting, every act of solidarity and bonding between new coworkers. In all, the film is a moving portrait of American’s new working class and the uneasy ways it exists in the modern global economy. By favouring observation over rhetoric, implication over explication, American Factory becomes a loud statement about the dysfunctions of late capitalism and the need for a more humane way to engage each other and deal with competing interests in a globalized world.

8 out of 10

American Factory (2019, USA)

Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar.