Netflix documentary “American Factory”, which received the Documentary Directing Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is initially amusing but then becomes more pointed than expected. As closely looking into one particular industrial change in post-industrial Ohio, the documentary generates some amusement from the cultural clash accompanying that change, but then it gradually changes its tone as things get less optimistic for everyone in the picture, and, when the documentary is over, you may find yourself reflecting on that eventual cost of industrial globalization.
The documentary begins with an archival footage clip showing the closing of a General Motors (GM) plant in Dayton, Ohio around the end of 2008. During its peak, this factory had been the main source of income for thousands of local working-class people, but the company decided to shut it down because of the economic depression during the late 2000s, and those factory workers were certainly saddened and devastated as facing their unemployed status which might last for years.
And then, several years later, there came a new big job opportunity for them as a Chinese corporation named Fuyao opened a new manufacturing factory at the very spot which belonged to that GM plant. Although they had to make car windows instead, many of former GM factory workers were eager to learn new things for this job opportunity. Now they get paid quite less than before, but they do not complain much because most of them have been in financially desperate situations, and one of them later shows us how she has been living in the small basement of her sister’s house since she lost her job and house at that gloomy time.
Anyway, as hoping that they will eventually be rewarded for their diligent work, they try as much as they can, and we see them working along with a bunch of Chinese employees to help and supervise them. While both American and Chinese employees need to keep in mind how much they are different from each other in terms of culture and work ethics, the gap between these two groups eventually becomes less wide as they come to work more with each other, and we get a small humorous moment when several Chinese employees try fishing at a nearby river.
However, despite the optimism among the American and Chinese factory workers, the factory still does not make any substantial profit, and the management department of the factory, which also consists of both American and Chinese guys, is certainly pressured a lot by Cao Dewang, a billionaire who is the chairman of Fuyao. Whenever he visits the factory, Cao frequently expresses his frustration about how things do not go as well as he wished, and he is also quite adamant about not allowing the factory workers to join the United Auto Workers because, well, the union is nothing but a trouble in his capitalistic viewpoint.
The most amusing moment in the documentary comes from when several American managers of the factory are invited to the headquarters of Fuyao in China. When they visit a nearby factory, they are alternatively befuddled and impressed to see that everyone in the factory is quite accustomed to working as much as demanded by the company even though they do not get much reward for that. While there is the company union for these and many other workers out there, it is actually under the control of the Chinese government, and it is also incidentally headed by one of Cao’s close family members.
Unfortunately, the factory in Dayton continues to dwindle in its underachieving status, and its American workers become more discontent in the meantime. Besides their stagnant wage, there are a number of problems including the frequent failures to communicate between them and Chinese workers, and one employee shows us how it is often frustrating for him to handle this and many other matters as a supervisor everyday.
Eventually, many of American workers in the factory come to demand that the factory should join the United Auto Workers, and that is when the tone of the documentary becomes more serious than before. We see how several different American workers try to persuade other American workers on the necessity of the union, and then we observe how Fuyao attempts to suppress this labor movement. At one point, the company hires a consultant, and this consultant tries as much as paid during his anti-union presentation for the workers of the factory.
While trying to be as objective as possible in their phlegmatic approach, directors/producers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who were previously Oscar-nominated for their short film “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant” (2009), are clearly sympathetic to the workers of the factory, and that aspect is evident when the documentary arrives at its bitter open-ended conclusion. Yes, those many big corporations in our world will not stop at all in their relentless pursuit of more profit and efficiency, and, as reflected by one brief moment shown around the end of the documentary, they will surely welcome a brave new world where they will not have to struggle with human labor anymore thanks to technological advance.
Overall, “American Factory”, which is incidentally the first film from Barack and Michelle Obama’s highly publicized production company Higher Ground, did a commendable job of presenting its subjects with care and concern, and I came to muse a lot on its human moments after watching it. In short, this is another interesting Netflix documentary of this year, and it will certainly enlighten you more on that timeless matter between labor and management.