American Factory (2019)

Directed by Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

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Maybe it’s not appropriate to love movies like this, but I do.  They depict a certain part of America that is often overlooked, and I find these documentaries both troubling and deeply fascinating.  Other recent films in this vein are Rich Hill (2014) and Minding the Gap (2018).  They take us to small towns and show us intimately the lives of some of the people who live there.

In the case of American Factory there’s more of a narrative right upfront.  We follow a group of people who work for Fuyao, a Chinese windshield manufacturing company which had taken over the vacant former GM factory which closed a few years before.  With their arrival comes a couple thousand jobs to the Dayton, Ohio community, putting back to work people who had been unemployed since GM left.

It seems a great union at first, as we learn about the charming culture shock experienced by both the Americans and the group of Chinese workers who have come over to train them.  We meet one American employee who hosts Thanksgiving and shows a few of the Chinese employees how to shoot a gun, and we see the interaction between two men fishing as one tells the other how to pronounce ‘carp.’

But then we learn that the American employees are making less than half of what they earned before, then how they are expected to work longer hours than what is legally allowed.  Finally the issue of forming a union, which Fuyao has long abhorred, comes to the forefront.

These issues only grow more extreme, and tensions indeed rise.  But rather than finding a villain in all of this, the film frames it in such a way that we see the conflict as something inevitable and understandable.  These are two different cultures with two different approaches to work that highlight more than anything the fundamental differences between how they view life, people and society.

I’ve never quite seen anything like this.  It’s not a fish out of water story where the white, American male (who is meant to represent the average person) finds himself in a new culture and experiences some kind of half-assed transcendence.  Then he returns home a new man.

A story like that risks simplifying and commodifying different cultures, as if they only matter in terms of how they better the protagonist.  In American Factory there is a lot to both like and be critical of when it comes to both societies.  They are just groups of humans who have found different ways to function.  We spend time with one group, hear how they speak of the other, and it routinely normalizes their own behavior…until we then join the other group and hear how they speak.

So we’re constantly going back and forth in a way that ingratiates us to one culture and looks more critically at the other, then the sides flip yet again.

I struggle to remember a film that so adeptly puts us in two different head spaces at once.  It might feel like we’re headed a certain direction, but things always stop short and pivot.  No one here is the hero or villain, they’re just trying their best to accomplish what they mean to accomplish.

Now maybe we are meant to be suspicious of anyone with a lot of money (say over a billion dollars), but even there the film is quite warm towards its richest character, Cao Dewang, who regards some of his own missteps and questions about life as a whole.

In short, no one is shortchanged here, at least no one who is made to be a character within the film.  They are allowed time to speak and to think and to express themselves fully.  The sadness of the film is on a bigger scale, that such people should be so left in the dark by an uncaring system.

Taking a step back I suppose they are all just cogs in a machine.  One side embraces that and the other doesn’t.  But even beyond that there is a more human, more individualistic ambition, though perhaps it’s something that can be either tamed or beaten out of us depending on what the world around us tells us to value.  There’s a lot to chew on.  Are we here to express ourselves or to function within something bigger?  And to what degree might we need to do both?

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