Movie Review – American Factory
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film is very topical given that the news about the trade war between China and the United States have increased over the past month. Technically, the trade war started in January 2018 when the White House started announcing tariffs or taxes on Chinese goods and products. Those tariffs ramped up last summer. China retaliated with tariffs on American goods and products. A year later, reports have been incessant about how President Donald Trump’s tactics are hurting American farmers. All of this particularly came to the forefront when August 2019 saw the Dow Jones drop significantly due to this ongoing trade war and Trump’s rhetoric. There has been a lot of political debate, which has raised awareness on China’s role in the American economy. It’s raised awareness about the trade deficit about which Trump complains. It’s also raised awareness about China stealing intellectual property and its foreign-ownership restrictions.
The trade deficit is basically the U.S. buying more from China than it sells, which some people might dispute how bad of a thing that is. The stealing of intellectual property is something that most agree should be fought. The foreign-ownership restrictions prevent American companies from investing in Chinese companies or limit how American companies can operate in China. These restrictions don’t seem to be as strict the other way around, meaning when it comes to Chinese companies investing in American ones or Chinese companies operating in the USA. Essentially, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary focuses on that point.
Bognar and Reichert are Emmy-winners for one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, A Lion in the House (2006). Bognar and Reichert are also Oscar-nominees for the documentary short, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009). That short film was about General Motors shutting down a manufacturing facility in Moraine, Ohio, in December 2018. Moraine is a city just south of Dayton. The short film followed the workers at that facility who got laid off, losing their jobs and their livelihoods as a result. This feature-length documentary is for the most part a sequel to that Oscar-nominated film. Ten years later, the filmmakers follow a Chinese company called Fuyao, which purchased the Ohio manufacturing facility that made automobiles and transformed it into a glass-making operation.
There have been articles within the past couple of years about Chinese corporations purchasing American companies or American assets and taking control. In cases like Fuyao in Ohio, the benefits seem to be the influx of jobs for people who are desperate to work, who were previously laid off and who are struggling to survive financially. However, some wonder what the long-term effects are going to be and how it will truly change the socioeconomic dynamics in this country. This film boils it all down to the clash of cultures that came to a head at Fuyao in Ohio when some of the American workers there pushed for the formation of a union or for them to become members of the UAW.
The employees of Fuyao Glass America or FGA are a mix of American workers and Chinese workers, workers who literally immigrated to Ohio to help maintain the plant. Watching the differences between the American workers and the Chinese workers form the basis for the tension and conflict. Literally, Bognar and Reichert show us the American workers doing their jobs on the veritable assembly line making glass. They then fly to China and show us the Asian workers doing their jobs. The Chinese workers seem to be more efficient and dedicated. Whereas the Americans seem to be incompetent and lazier.
The contrasts though become unfair once certain details become obvious. The Americans are bigger in size to the Chinese on a physical level. One could argue the Americans are more obese, so the design of work gear, both clothes and machinery, and even the workplace itself in terms of walkways are made for physically smaller people, which causes issues. It seems as if a lot of the Americans have to learn how the glass factory works, having never done it before. That’s contrasted with the Chinese workers who have been doing it for years. The Chinese also pride themselves on their long work-hours.
The Chinese workers pride themselves specifically on working around 12 hours a day and six days a week. We see them never question or complain, even when subjected to dangerous conditions. They also exhibit an almost military-style attitude or regimen while in the workplace. The documentary never really defines or measures with any clarity the productivity of the Chinese workers versus the American workers. The head of Fuyao simply says the American workers aren’t meeting his goals. His goals though are never specifically defined.
The head of Fuyao as well as other executives seem to care about the Americans. Yet, others are quite condescending and dismissive. They resist any kind of push for a union at Fuyao. This documentary as a result spotlights the industry that has been built, specifically to stop unionizing forces. It is perhaps endemic to Chinese culture to see workers as cogs in a wheel, as parts to a machine, but corporate culture in general seems to have that same sentiment. It is perhaps appropriate if not poignant that the conclusion of this film is Fuyao moving more toward automation and laying off workers, as much as it promised in the beginning to hire them.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.
In select theaters and available on Netflix.