American Factory, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, explores what happens to General Motors workers in Ohio as the Chinese Fuyao Glass company takes over its old factories. (BV 4.0/5.0)
Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri
Michelle and Barack Obama’s film company “Higher Ground Productions” delivers a deeply thoughtful debut documentary with American Factory. I was unfortunately unable to catch American Factory in theaters, so my experience wasn’t as immersive as it could have been, but still found the film very profound. Nonetheless, I admit I may have missed a few details and viewing it in theaters would have been more impactful. The topics are very relevant to our current political climate: the US and Chinese trade war and Chinese expansion into western territories. It also covers a topic everyday people may know intimately: unions.
American Factory explores what becomes of a former General Motors factory when it’s taken over by CEO Cao Dewang, the owner of Chinese company Fuyao Glass that is dedicated to producing glass for automobiles. At first, workers are elated to be employed again— but the pay is nowhere near their former wages, and the work is much more grueling. Chinese workers are hired to “manage” the American workers to help promote maximum efficiency, and take courses on how to “deal” with American work culture.
A cultural clash is inevitable, but the Americans also sympathize with and befriend the Chinese, as they have left their families and homes an ocean away. Nonetheless, the workers attempt to organize a union to combat unfair practices. Will they prevail, and what will become of Fuyao Glass Company?
American Factory highlights the difference between the ideals of America and China, and though the footage shows both sides, I do implore people to remember to take western-made documentaries with a grain of salt. Some lines can easily be taken out of context and spun into anti-Chinese propaganda. We’ve already seen how western news spins stories (ie: China’s social credits), so I remind everyone to make their own judgments.
Nevertheless, this documentary attempts to be objective as it paints the picture between two opposing cultures. Fuyao’s glass company demands full-time, 40-hour work weeks, but only pays around $12 an hour, half of what most workers made at General Motors. But the Chinese scoff and say that’s so much already; in China, apparently people live in dorms, and work 12 hours a day. However, it’s said proudly; productivity is equated with happiness.
But is this simply a difference of culture? Or is this the human cost of capitalism, the side that we as Americans turn a blind eye to? American Factory urges us to think of this dark place. It’s definitely pro-union, but also gives us some context to the values of the Chinese.
American Factory is a well-made film, displaying raw emotion of workers that allows the viewer to empathize, yet also reminds us that not all values are universal. Despite these differences, we also see the bonds made between Chinese and American workers. We see faces behind big-name cogs, and how culture plays a significance in thought processes. But we’re also forced to ask if this is truly culture, or a need that has sprouted due to demand. American Factory is accompanied with a dreary and blue mood, the uncertain future of Fuyao Glass Company looms ahead.
© Beatrice Viri FF2 Media 9/03/2019
Does American Factory pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?