Here’s something that’s timely, almost suspiciously so: in the wake of the escalating trade war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of Trump, the production company of one Barack and Michelle Obama releases its first film, and the topic just so happens to be the industrial relationship between Zhonghuo and the US. One wouldn’t begrudge Higher Ground Productions of course, since it is likely enough that said trade dispute is going to drag on for a while. In the context of that, American Factory is the perfect investigatory/recordation piece, a chance to really get to the heart of the potentials and pitfalls of a new global trading order, but it still needs to be crafted with care. Turning into an outright propaganda piece for any part of the political spectrum is a label to be avoided: were the directing pair of Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert able to pull that off?
At the onset of the 2008 economic crisis, the GM Plant in Dayton, Ohio shuts its doors, leaving thousands unemployed and the local area in crisis. A few years later an apparent salvation is found when Chinese glass manufacturing giant Fuyao buys the plant, with stated intentions of running it as an American company under their aegis. Initial optimism turns to rancour however, when the radically different working cultures of China and America begin to clash, culminating in a bitter contest over unionisation.
American Factory is actually a sequel to a short film made by the same directors, The Last Truck: The Closing Of A GM Plant, that was award nominated back in 2009. The directors, with a back catalogue of films and short films of a similar bent, can thus be trusted to be familiar with what they are depicting, but never too familiar: both Bognar and Reichert remain detached, silent personalities behind the camera, with American Factory getting by on just a few small text crawls and no narration. Given the nature of what they were filming, it is somewhat extraordinary that the two were granted the level of access that they had: more than one of the subjects, and entire companies, depicted is probably regretting that.
Lazlo Bane, in their song “Superman”, best known for being the theme tune to Scrubs, said “I know what I’ve been told, I gotta work to feed the soul”. It’s a quaint, almost uplifting sentiment, that comes straight from the heart of industrial America. But he also said “I can’t do this all on my own, cause I’m no Superman”. I was thinking of those lyrics viewing American Factory, a film where the conflict between the valuing of hard work as an inherent part of national identity clashes with the physical and mental limitations of the body, that others of a different perspective are content to ignore completely.
American Factory is, at its heart, the story of two very different attitudes towards labour, both from the perspective of employer and employee. On the one hand you have the Americans, be they the assembly line worker delighted to be off the breadline for the first time in years, or the senior management selected by the Chinese owner to be the nominal heads of what is, essentially, a franchise. They value hard work but also value workers rights: to a fair wage, to breaks, to days off, to safety procedures, to the sweat of his or her brow. They want to be recognised individually for their achievements and they want to build towards a better life. For them, a happy worker is a satisfied worker.
The other hand is the Chinese model, with they divided between factory floor supervisors, middle-management types and the Fuyoa owner, Cao Dewang, usually referred to only, dictator like, as “Chairman”. They value hard work, and, to an extent, only hard work: excessive breaks, days off, an over-adherence to safety, these are the enemy, indulgences that are stifled out by a culture of withheld praise, freely given criticism and a surrender of the individual to the collective. To make the point, American Factory shows an early meeting between newly arrived Chinese workers and their Chinese managers, who explain that they will be allowed to make fun of the President in America, and it may, in fact, be seen as odd if they don’t. For them, a happy worker is one that works hardest.
It is genuinely fascinating how American Factory shows us a timeline, with footage showing a period of a few years, wherein the joy and comradely spirit of Fuyao’s initial takeover morphs into resentment, recrimination and cynicism. The mask slips ever so slowly: the film begins with “Chairman” openly declaring that the Dayton plant will be run in an American style with American accouterments, and by the end of it the new CEO of the plant, Chinese of course, is comparing the American workforce to donkeys and openly stating “We are better than them”. The steps along the way are the truly depressing part: the refusal of the Chinese to bend on anything beyond the ceremonial or the symbolic; how acceptance of vastly reduced wages from the GM days turns to bitterness at piecemeal raises; the constructive dismissals of those unwilling to bend the rules on safety, the removal of canteen space for more production lines, and, of course, the terrible battle fought to prevent workers from unionising, the ultimate evil in Chinese eyes.
There are a lot of great moments that Bognar and Reichert are able to capture. While putting together plans for a grand celebration to mark the re-opening of the plant, Cao casually orders a front entrance of the building to be moved: the horrified American manager notes that this will cost €35’000 dollars, but the interpreter merely shrugs. One worker notes that his Chinese counter-parts can be spotted casually dumping noxious chemicals down drains, because that’s how they do it at home. Canteen TV’s show endless loops of smiling Chinese children, to the eventual chagrin of American staff. A secret recording of a conservative anti-union group, paid over a million dollars by Fuyao to lobby staff against unionisation, shows a cavalcade of blatant lies and misinformation. And, ever and anon, those who who refuse to tow the line are simply replaced, whether it is the worker who finds herself asked to do the job of two people when she complained about a Chinese supervisor, or the CEO who just can’t stifle that pesky union talk.
The union battle makes up the largest part of American Factory. The film is undoubtedly a pro-union piece – though it is fair to say that the directors are more pro-worker, whether they are American or Chinese – and helps to remind viewers, and not just in the United States, why such organisations are important and why the pernicious and often misleading arguments against them can be so toxic. The silence behind the camera helps with this, removing any perception of preachiness or bully pulpitting. Things get brutal: Chinese supervisors are happy to talk openly to camera about how they have people spying on American labour to ferret out pro-union types for termination, and Senators who exhibit similarly sentiments are cursed out by American management. While the name “Trump” is never mentioned – one Chinese figure does ape some “MAGA” terminology, but that’s as far as it goes – the nature of the campaign between pro-union workers and anti-union bosses reeks of 2016 electioneering, with masses of misinformation and fear bandied about, in an effort to divide and conquer.
But American Factory is careful to show that not everyone becomes deadset against their new overlords. Plenty of workers state objections to union membership, and some are all too happy to ingratiate themselves as well as they can. One guy, Quisling-like, eagerly agrees with any Chinese criticism of American workers. While visiting China he says his workers should have their mouths duct-taped to increase productivity (the Chinese guy he’s talking to inquires, with deadly seriousness, if this is possible in America). Later, his attempts to enact the militaristic pre-shift meetings that he sees in China at home are, it is fair to say, only partial successes, met with a mixture of resigned boredom and silent, but obvious, hostility.
But it is only fair to mention the genuine efforts at integration that are made, like the workers who invite Chinese counter-parts on fishing trips, and the sense, at least early on, that both parties want the plant to succeed (with or without the apparent negative of American “fat fingers” as one supervisor declares, on inefficiency at work-stations). That’s about as much as they can do: when some workers travel to the opposing factory in China, they are greeted to an otherworldly display of garish totalitarianism, replete with young children singing odes to the success of the corporation. If the film has a flaw it’s that it is trying to take in the stories of so many people in 90 minutes that we never get a full picture of any of them: in an ironic sort of way, they become the kind of nameless factory floor nobody’s the Chinese probably view them as.
American Factory moves towards a downbeat and grim finale, at least if you are happy to cleave more to the perspective of the American worker. There is a subtle but obvious swap, where the workaholic Chinese begin to talk about their newfound ability to see the world and build improved lives for themselves, while some of the Americans begin to come to terms with the fact that the boom years are never going to come back. Bognar and Reichert make their point visually late on, with the sight of an American worker eating alone in a factory canteen; elsewhere, Cao casually discusses the possibilities of automation allowing Fuyao to “cancel” employees altogether. In this factory, it is the natives who seem more likely to become the mindless robots, if the literal kind don’t take their jobs first.
The film thus serves as a mix of warning signal about the dangers of such working culture clashes becoming manifest through Chinese industrial expansion, and a dirge for the worker at the heart of the “American Dream”, a figure and a concept becoming increasingly irrelevant. American’s simply don’t seem to believe in it anymore, or the concept that a benevolent corporate entity will look for their well-being. Trump’s efforts to go toe-to-toe with China in the trade arena seem unlikely to prevent such irrelevance. Perhaps only changes within the culture of the Chinese workforce could, if that will ever come to the degree that it needs to. Going by the headlines and images from Hong Kong, we need not hold our breath. As Cao himself says late on, in a line that should terrify as much as it saddens, “The point of life is to work”. I know where he would come down on the Lazlo Bane lyrics.
It’s good to see films like this on topics like this. I doubt that it will change many minds on the other side of the divide – just the name of the production company will see it ignored – but as an exercise in preaching to the choir, in providing awareness of how such anti-union measures are carried out, I think it is worth a hell of a lot. It’s the kind of film that should be shown to young people and aspiring blue-collar workers everywhere, before the idea of a union is lost forever, and before the normality of brutal working hours, no breaks and no regard for safety sets in. Bognar and Reichert deserve kudos for that, and for their detached, informative technique in making this effort. The feelings behind this film are so achingly real: there is anger, there is empathy and there is sadness. Documentaries that exhibit such feelings so well deserve praise. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).