In our never ending quest to catch up on Oscar contenders at the end of the year, we decided to watch a documentary last night. American Factory (Netflix) is a documentary produced by the Obama owned production company Higher Ground Productions, and tells the story of workers in Dayton, Ohio. Dayton was once a booming town whose main employer was a GM plant that closed in 2008. Many people were without work until the Chinese owned company Fuyao came to the rescue and reopened the factory to produce auto glass. This transition is not without its issues and that is the main focus of the film.
In general this documentary is very well shot. Even though it is a pretty heavy topic, it is shot in a fairly bright color palette. This is also surprising given the fact that most of the narrative takes place in a factory. The filmmakers also do a really good job of allowing the viewer to develop a relationship with the people they are following. I am very picky about the use of B-roll in documentaries. I really can’t point to a moment in this film though where I was annoyed or turned off by it. While this film was really well shot, I think the more surprising aspect is what is revealed.
As I eluded to before, the reopening of this particular plant was quite rocky. The basic story is that a Chinese owned company came to the U.S. to reopen a factory in a struggling town. People are desperate because they have been out of work. They are just happy to have work again, even if that comes with consequences. The wages are low, it is not a safe working environment, and Fuyao is very anti-union. These employees are used to the protections of a union because most of them used to work for GM. Their attempt to create a union is where most of the tension comes from throughout. Fuyao goes to great lengths to make sure this union is not created. It is very evident that they do not care about the rights that American workers are allowed such as safety, living wages, and time off. They make it very clear they are only in this for profits and do not care about the human aspects of the operation.
The juxtaposition that is created between Chinese culture and American culture is also where a lot of tension comes from. There are several moments in the film where as an American it was hard to believe. There is one particular scene when some American Fuyao employees travel to China to tour a factory. The way Chinese employees are treated, the expectations, and the atmosphere are very different than what we are used to in this country. Worker’s rights essentially do not exist. On the flip side of that, there are also scenes where the Chinese workers at the American plant are in meetings where they are learning about American culture. Fuyao management is not at all shy about reminding the Chinese employees that their work ethic is superior to the American workers. Additionally, both cultures rely heavily on stereotypes of each others’ cultures during their interactions, and the results are disastrous. Because of this, a lot of tension exists within the factory.
The filmmakers do a really good job of reminding us that the Chinese workers are spending time in a foreign country away from their families and everything they know. There is also an overarching message that we are all one. Despite our cultural differences, we are all just human. That point is driven home in the film’s final moments. Workers from both cultures realize automation will change all of their lives. This documentary is really eye opening. And it will really make you feel grateful for the rights we are awarded as American workers.