American Factory wowed audiences at a special screening at the Whitby Hotel this past Wednesday. An refreshingly fair take of US-Chinese cultural clash, the film’s grander message zooms out to refocus our attention on a more threatening conflict.
The academy award-nominated Netflix documentary chronicles the reopening of a shuttered GM plant in Dayton, Ohio by a Chinese billionaire and chairman of Fuyao Glass Industry Group, Cao Dewang. He employs thousands of Dayton locals, many of whom lost their jobs when the GM plant closed, to work side-by-side with experienced Chinese nationals. The work is unfamiliar for the Americans, the expectations high, and the pay lower than before, but they take it in stride, viewing the reopening as hopeful step into a more prosperous future.
The documentary delves into the rifts between the Americans and the Chinese in the first rocky months of the plant’s opening. Vast differences in management style threaten the operation. The filmmakers’ vérité style and involvement of Chinese co-producers Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang keep the narrative balanced and provide access to some of the Chinese managers’ unvarnished opinions of the American workers.
“They’re pretty slow,” one manager explains to the chairman. “They have fat fingers. We keep training them over and over.”
But many of the factory workers find common ground. They communicate with the help of translation apps, go fly-fishing, and share meals. It’s awkward and uncomfortable but ultimately joyous as the workers stumble over their words and get to know each other. American Factory offers us a real look at what cultural bridging might look like. It’s not what we might have envisioned. In a time when the smallest cultural missteps are often met with great scrutiny and criticism, I certainly didn’t envision any Chinese workers getting to know US culture by dressing up as Scarface and going to the gun range with their American coworkers.
Though this cultural tension is what pushes the film forward in its first act, a more existential threat emerges. Pressure to drive profit combined with an attitude that views safety regulations more as gentle recommendations than legal requirements push the workers to unionize. The capitalist system that Fuyao and all other large corporations operate under becomes more and more visible. Anti-unionization consultants hired by Fuyao wage a campaign to deter unionization. Workers that became labor activists are let go with little explanation. We start to realize what this film really wants us to worry about.
In the final act of the documentary, the landscape shifts once more. Fuyao finds a new solution for the management issues it faced with the American workers. Automation. Any optimism we gathered earlier in the film evaporates. Cultural differences and collaboration across borders matter much less if you take the worker out of the picture entirely.
As the mechanical arm installed in the Fuyao factory moved panes of glass between production lines in one smooth motion, I was mesmerized for a moment. They’re beautiful, not just in their construction, but in their potential. In a different world, a single arm could free two to four factory workers from moving those 40 pound panes themselves, from repetitive motion injuries, from labor that can literally break backs. An elegant solution. But that thought only lasted for a moment.
“We’re hoping to cancel four workers in July or August,” says a factory manager to Chairman Cao as they tour the plant.
A Q&A with filmmakers Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, and Jeff Reichert about the film and the future of work, moderated by the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance Ai-jen Poo, followed the screening.
American Factory is currently streaming on Netflix.