American Factory explores the lives of American and Chinese workers after the Chinese company Fuyao opened an auto-glass manufacturing plant in the abandoned husk of a General Motors plan in Moraine, Ohio, outside the city of Dayton.
As is so often the case, the original plant’s closure was disastrous for the area, with few of the well-paying working-class jobs replaced by anything resembling middle-class work. Documentarian Julia Reichert and her partner, Steve Bognar, are Dayton locals. Their short film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (available on Amazon Prime Video) documented the closing of the plant in 2009, and was nominated for the Best Documentary (Short Subject) prize. In Last Truck, Reichert and Bognar were on the ground floor when the plant closing was announced; so too in American Factory, which they started after Fuyao announced its intent to buy the plant (thanks to tax credits and promised local investment), and subsequently filmed for several years, interviewing both American workers and the Chinese workers who immigrated over from the Fuyao plant in China to help run the new installation. The result is a well-formed, captivating documentary about the challenges facing workers in both the United States and China, explored by way of their working cultures clashing and merging within the confines of the Fuyao plant.
American Factory focuses on several workers, managers, vice presidents, and Moraine / Dayton residents from the opening of the plant to its eventual profitability two years later. The intimate access allows an incredible view into the way different levels of management organize around the differing work philosophies. In China, it’s not uncommon for factory workers to live in compounds near their factories — away from their homes, with only a day off per week. Wang, one of the men who comes to Dayton to help open the plant, was sent away from China for a two-year stint in the United States. His life, and the lives of his fellow expats, are remarkably different from the Americans brought in to work at Fuyao, who are used to the American 40-hour workweek, to real wages, to being middle class. Several Chinese managers lament that their people “live to work” whereas Americans “work to live,” putting onus on the Americans for not hitting their production goals. Initially Fuyao maintained American presidents and vice presidents among its leadership team. They were jettisoned and replaced with Chinese managers.
One ongoing subplot is the role of union organizing within the factory. It goes about how you’d expect in central Ohio: the Chinese leadership threatens to close the plant if unions happen, and American consulting firms aid their messaging by coming in and trying to scare workers out of unionizing. Management raise wages by a smidgen, ignoring safety concerns at the plant and other complaints. A union vote ultimately fails, and most of the workers who hoped to unionize are fired. The subplot speaks to the nature of the modern American workforce: disorganized, disassociated, desperate.
Due to the “direct cinema” approach, American Factory never pulls out from the Fuyao factory far enough to discuss the fact that companies like Fuyao are given excessive tax incentives to open their facilities in the United States — often by Republican administrations, which then claim to have brought jobs and investment to certain areas despite these installations being a far cry from the expectations American workers have of dignified work and decent pay. An example of one of these projects failing is the Foxconn project in Wisconsin, infamous for the fact that it still hasn’t happened despite the use of eminent domain to kick people out of their homes. Watching Last Truck and American Factory together charts a decline in the working conditions for the workers in Moraine, and our country as a whole.
Reichert and Bognar aimed to make American Factory as apolitical as possible, presenting their subjects without chiming in to provide overt political messaging. Here’s what they had to say in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “We wanted to make a film that was depolarizing, that had nuance and complexity. That’s what we were striving for. As we all know, these are very polarized times and it’s easy to run to the barricades. So we were hoping the film can resonate as a way to say: You know what? It’s actually better if we talk to each other and don’t just retreat to our corners and our slogans.”
There will probably be hay made in some reviews about Reichert’s past work having socialist leanings, and how the Obamas’ new production company, Higher Ground, bought into the completed film to help bring it to a broader release on Netflix’s streaming platform. To be frank, it’s not possible to make a story empathetic to the working class without enduring accusations of socialist tendencies. That’s because — in the United States in particular, — “socialism” is a euphemism, a derogatory term used by those with power to deny empathy to anyone broken down by the system. This is not to suggest that the people depicted in the documentary politically feel one way or another. But the decline of the American working situation, particularly in Ohio, continues to play a role in the political developments following the Great Recession and up until today. American Factory provides a lot to think about regarding that decline a decade later. What does working culture mean, as capital shifts globally and becomes more and more entrenched, more unequal? This is not a Roger & Me style of punk exposé, and all the attention is placed on the people affected by the Fuyao plant for good or ill. Make up your own mind. There is a lot to think about.
Reichert and Bognar’s filmmaking is immaculate, and their focus on the working cultures split by land and sea is detailed, thoughtful and true. The film ends with a warning about how automation will further decimate the working classes of the world, a pre-eminent danger. But if American Factory has any immediate takeaway, it is that regardless of where you are working in the world, there is always someone in power looking to exploit you, and that the more opportunities they’re given, the more people they will grind down to nubs.