It’s fitting that one of America’s premier documentary festivals – Full Frame in Durham, North Carolina – opened its 22nd year with a timely, artful, engrossing film co-directed by two well-established American documentarians. Julia Reichert has been making films since 1971, Steven Bognar since 1990.
The prologue to their latest work, American Factory, picks up where their 2009 short, The Last Truck, left off. The GM plant in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio had closed its doors, leaving thousands unemployed. Fast forward seven years, and a Chinese auto glass manufacturer has bought the empty factory and is hiring locally.
Granted total access to workers – from billionaire CEO Chairman Cao, to imported Chinese supervisors, to Ohio-born women and men on the assembly lines – the final result of three years filming is surprisingly humorous, touching, and thought-provoking.
Reichart and Bognar are at the top of their game here, aided by a comparably excellent crew. Their editor Lindsay Utz (who also did fine work on 2017’s Quest) imparts their film with a propulsive momentum and excitement that never flags. The score by Chad Cannon is superior to that of most narrative films: the opening low-register strings and woodwinds hint at troubles soon to come, while the concluding horn fanfare lends dignity to shots of workers at shift change.
The directors give their film a narrative arc on a par with top-shelf fictional movies. The president of the American branch of Fuyao Glass Industry tells workers early on that he would prefer the factory stay non-union, foreshadowing the film’s climactic conflict between pro- and anti-union forces. Chairman Cao’s subsequent statement that unionization would cause him to shut down U.S. operations ups the tension still higher.
Much of the first half of American Factory concerns itself with the clash of Chinese and American culture. The results are frequently laugh out loud funny, as when Cao’s feng shui-motivated displeasure at fire alarm placement battles with OSHA regulations. During an orientation of Chinese supervisors, the Chinese presenter shocks his audience by telling them that Americans are “free to follow their heart,” even to the point of being permitted to criticize their president. (The stereotyping later becomes derogatory and condescending, as supervisors lament their charges’ fat fingers, sluggishness, and baby-like need for constant encouragement.)Many reaction shots are priceless. When a handful of American line supervisors are taken to China, they cannot conceal their astonishment at the military sound-offs that start a worker’s day, or a women’s chorus at a yearly party exhorting leanness and efficiency, before they get on stage themselves and lead a joyously-received rendition of “Y.M.C.A.”
However, Reichart and Bognar dig far below the easy laughs. There’s real poignancy to the palpable relief felt by the U.S. workers when jobs arrive again in their Rust Belt town, following years of underemployment, lost vehicles, and home foreclosures. Alas, the delight turns to disenchantment, given the constant push to achieve unsafe levels of productivity for less than half the wages GM was paying.
We also see the sacrifices made by Chinese supervisors coming to America, especially in the person of Leon. Compelled to leave his wife and young children behind for two years, his long hours only permit a quick break to wolf down two Twinkies as his midday “meal.”
Observing the bond that forms between Chinese supervisors and their charges, we become invested in the success of this enterprise. This is exemplified by Rob, inviting bosses to his home for Thanksgiving, where he introduces them to the all-American triad of guns, a Harley-Davidson, and horses.
Through all of this personal and corporate drama, an indictment of work culture in both America and China coalesces. In China, the violation of human dignity is perhaps more extreme. The failure of the Maoist and Communist ideals is evident in the person of Cao, a billionaire whose Chinese workers receive one or two days off per month and are permitted the same numbers of visits home to their children yearly. (Ironically, his brother-in-law is the local Communist Party bigwig.)
However, this is only mildly attenuated stateside, where union sympathies or workplace injuries threaten job security, and where a “safety doesn’t pay the bills” mentality saps morale. (And the directors took great pains to point out in last night’s Q&A that these problems are not merely endemic to Chinese-owned businesses on U.S. soil, but are instead epidemic in scope, no matter the owner.)
I’m hard-pressed to think of a better recent film illustrating the vacuum of meaning, respect, and security suffered by working class Americans. From there, it’s easy enough to extrapolate to the desperate need for unionization and radical modification (if not outright abolition) of unfettered capitalism and corporate power.
4 out of 5 stars