American Factory


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

American Factory
"This consideration of multiple lives, rather than one constructed arc serves to underline the sense that each person is only a small cog turning in the bigger wheel of the machine." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

A documentary about a single factory in the US may, at a glance, appear to have a narrow focus - but over the course of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's film, issues as wide-ranging as globalisation, cultural understanding, workers rights and the potential impact of automation in workplaces across the world will all be covered.

The factory in question is near Dayton, Ohio, once a General Motors hub that employed more than 2,000 when it closed down in 2008 - with a total of about 10,000 local jobs lost in its wake - and, as it shut, the subject of the documentarians' Oscar-nominated short film The Last Truck.

This, was not the end of the story, however. Fast-forward to 2015 and job hopes were on the horizon with the arrival of Chinese entrepreneur Cao Dewang, who bought the plant to repurpose it as a glass manufacturers, producing windscreens and other glass car parts. The Fuyao plant aimed to "merge" the Chinese and American ethos and workforce, with a team of Chinese staff helping to train those hired from the local area.

Bognar and Reichert's film is a testimony to the way that, when in close quarters with one another, humans tend to try to get along no matter what their cultural differences. Many of the Dayton workers forge personal connections with their new colleagues, even though the established and expected working regime for both sets of staff, in terms of hours, is quite different. While, on a personal level, things are reasonably tranquil, however, friction begins to grow over working practices. The Chinese staff seem shocked by how cossetted their American colleagues are, with their two days off a week, while the contrast between regimens becomes even more stark when a group of US workers travel to Fuyao's sister plant in China and see the level of industry there.

Some of these interactions are humorous - not least a glitzy New Year's song and dance presentation by the Chinese-based workers that is followed by the US visitors' offering their less than choreographed take on the Village People's YMCA - but gradually more serious issues begin to creep in to the edges of Bognar and Reichert's lens. The sight of the workers in China picking through broken glass with little protective clothing horrifies the US workers and there is discontent on the home front too, as productivity pressure appears to lead to injuries. Wages set at less than half what the staff earned at GM also start to fuel an incipient union movement, which looks set to put the staff on a collision course with the anti-union Cao, who bluntly tells his senior management near the start of the film that if they unionise, he'll close the plant.

he focus is diffuse in terms of individuals - although many of the stories, from loss of home in the US due to being made redundant to loss of family for the Chinese workers who long for loved ones back home are emotionally resonant. This consideration of multiple lives, rather than one constructed arc serves to underline the sense that each person is only a small cog turning in the bigger wheel of the machine. It's all observed in detail by Bognar and Reichert, who have an eye for gesture as well as interview, and smoothly edited together by Lindsay Utz. The mood is enhanced by Chad Cannon's orchestration that echoes Philip Glass in its suggestion of the rhythm of automation but which is also imbued with a certain nostalgia that fits the workers' emotional landscape.

Bognar and Reichert maintain a balance. They're not looking for 'bad guys' here and Cao proves surprisingly open about his own personal conflict about the success of his business. Gradually, they reveal how hard it is to maintain worker welfare standards when productivity expectations are so high. They also highlight the ruthlessness of big business, that, with labour laws weak, seems more or less able to sack who it chooses, simply for backing the union. Better still, perhaps, to buy in machines that can do the job in less time and never complain. If this is the future, perhaps we should all beware not false prophets but false profits.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2020
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In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant, hiring 2,000 blue-collar Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.

Director: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Year: 2019

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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