American Factory

“A New Take on Post-Fordism”

Daniel Herbert (University of Michigan)

American Factory is a smart and engaging film that tells a classic story of labor versus capital. Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of the film is how unsurprising so much of it is to anyone who knows anything about the history of working-class politics or has read a bit of Karl Marx. We see factory workers suffer injuries because of unsafe work conditions. We see the capitalist owner complain about lazy employees. We hear from factory managers that they have spies in the workforce to identify union activists. It all looks remarkably familiar.

Produced and directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, American Factory is a sequel of sorts to the pair’s Oscar-nominated film, The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant (2009), which documented the closing of a car factory outside of Dayton, OH, and the people whose lives were affected. American Factory picks up at the same plant in 2015, when it is purchased by the Chinese automotive glass manufacturer Fuyao. The new owner provides many in the area with a much-welcomed return to work, but as the film shows, working for Fuyao is unusual in a number of ways and presents serious challenges, which provide ample material for the film’s drama.

If American Factory offers a twist on the narrative of capital’s drive to discipline and punish workers, it is through its attention to a Chinese company operating in the American Midwest. Although focused on the plant and its workers, this setting is clearly linked to the vagaries of the international flows of capital and finance, which decimate some local economies while enriching others in a process of creative destruction and (sometimes) rejuvenation. Nevertheless, American Factory is especially interested in how cultural differences, between “American” and “Chinese,” intersect in complex ways with the already dramatic circumstances of global capital’s local manifestations.

At first, it seems that everything at the factory is good, if a little different than in the past, but the situation sours fairly quickly. Fuyao employs a number of Americans to help lead the management of the Ohio plant, while the company also brings in a number of Chinese factory workers, who appear to work in excess of the standard 8-hour workday and Monday-through-Friday, 40-hour work week. Amidst this odd division of labor, American employees discuss how much less they make at Fuyao than they did at GM, grim but grateful to have any employment at all.

The film shows training lectures given to the two workforces, where Chinese and Americans are told about the ostensible differences in their national cultures and, in optimistic terms, how Fuyao will conjoin these cultures. In these moments, we see that although the directors of American Factory may want to refrain from simplistic cultural stereotypes, the managers and workers involved in this venture draw upon clichés and stereotypes as a shorthand to explain their unusual circumstance. As one might imagine, this generates a wide range of illuminating scenes and interactions; numerous conflicts occur, as do occasional moments of cross-cultural bonding. One middle-aged American refers to a fellow employee as his “Chinese brother.” In another scene, an American manager breaks into tears after seeing a number of Chinese workers get married; he states, “we are one,” apparently feeling connected by a shared heteronormativity.

Stylistically, American Factory takes an observational approach, with events and conversations appearing on screen as a matter of course. The film is notably wide-ranging while remaining centered on the factory and its community. We have access to the factory floor during production, to meetings of upper management, to workers in their homes reflecting on their lives, and to pro-union picket lines outside the factory gate, among many other scenes and locations. We see scenes in China as well, such as when the American management team travels there for a summit. American Factory, in other words, creates moments of human-scale drama and even intimacy while maintaining a seemingly objective view.

Dramatic pressure builds as the film unfolds and the demands of capital impact the bodies and minds of the workers. We witness mounting moments of tension, such as when windshields shatter repeatedly and workers scramble to maintain the workflow, or when a crying female American worker asks an American male manager to intercede on her behalf with a male Chinese manager who, she argues, is demanding too much and being impolite. Responding to complaints by American workers, a Chinese employee states, “The Americans…I don’t give a shit what they think.” And several American workers say similarly negative things about the Chinese, in pronouncements that conflate national identity, ethnicity, and work habits in a confusing mix.

After the American leadership team is replaced entirely by Chinese managers, some call for unionization, which the Chinese owners work to thwart. (Whatever the current Chinese mode of production may be, communist it is not.) We get rousing speeches at a UAW meeting and mandatory, anti-union “education” sessions at the plant. A vote is held, and the plant will remain non-union. The film showcases some celebrating Chinese faces and more resolved and grim Americans.

In scenes like these, it is difficult to not see simplistic binaries rise up out of the film, which map all sorts of meanings onto “American” and Chinese” while marking these categories as distinct. Yet overall, American Factory does well in problematizing any one-dimensional definitions of identity, as it humanizes both American and Chinese figures in their hopes, dignity, and faults. The end of the film especially invites viewers to reflect on the similarities and differences between American and Chinese people with intercut scenes of workers leaving Fuyao plants in both the United States and China. One can see differences in these people’s attire and comportment, in their skin tones and hair. But one can also see them in these passages as workers all the same.

To close, it’s worth noting that the circulation of American Factory through culture has been nearly as interesting as the circulation of capital that it documents. After winning the directing award for Best Documentary at Sundance in 2019, the film was picked up by Higher Ground Productions, a media company owned by Barack and Michelle Obama that has a multi-year deal with Netflix. Although produced before the Obamas partnered with Netflix, American Factory served as Higher Ground’s inaugural release, signaling something about the identity that the company sought within the media business and culture more generally. Sundance, Netflix, the Obamas – for delving into some of the hard, human experiences of capitalist exploitation and cultural difference, American Factory has been valorized with remarkable prestige. One can guess what Marx would say about that.

“A Very American ‘Solution’ in a Chinese-Owned Factory”

Jenny Chio (University of Southern California)

At the time of this writing, the ripple effect of the documentary American Factory has been impressive. It is nominated in the “Best Documentary” category for the upcoming Oscars; the film has been widely reviewed and discussed in both the United States and China; and an unfair labor practice charge was filed against the Chinese-owned company depicted in the film, Fuyao Glass America, one day after its release on August 21, 2019. Co-director Julia Reichart has won three lifetime achievement awards (two in 2019 and one in 2018), had a retrospective of her work at MOMA in New York, and has had her prolific career thoughtfully reviewed by Patricia Aufderheide in Film Quarterly.

The basic story of the film – in 2014, Fuyao, a Chinese glass manufacturing company, reopened a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, that closed in 2008 – is neither straightforward nor shocking. These days, the mere fact that a Chinese company would purchase and re-purpose a shutdown factory in the United States should not surprise anyone. Nevertheless, American Factory is a compelling documentary, filmed and edited in a respectful observational manner that does not, however, purport to be neutral. As many reviewers have noted, the film offers a pointed commentary on the strengths and the weaknesses of both American and Chinese ambitions and expectations when it comes to politics, profits, and power in this almost-but-not-quite post-industrial moment.

Fuyao’s arrival in Dayton was broadly celebrated; it was a relief – to have jobs again, even if they are lower-paying jobs – and, as the film unfolds, a reckoning – to come face to face with “globalization” in all of its humanity and humility. It didn’t have to be this way, of course. After all, as the 2006 documentary Losers and Winners (dir. Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken) depicted, a Chinese company literally purchased a coal-processing plant in Germany and proceeded to move it, piece by piece, to China. Superficially, then, we could focus on the (visually/linguistically) obvious in American Factory: the differences, reduced to “culture,” between the American and Chinese workers as shown in the film, with the former tagged as uncooperatively independently minded and the latter as unquestioningly obedient. American Factory offers plenty of gentle moments in which factory workers, whether American or Chinese, are shown to be doing their best to understand and befriend one another. But these human-to-human encounters are undone and undermined by the corporate managers and, ultimately the factory owner (Cao Dewang), for whom the factory’s success in Dayton is measured not only by profits but also by power: the power of China to own and operate a factory in the United States, and his power to introduce and enforce standards of employment that will ensure Fuyao’s continued profitability and dominance in the global market for automotive glass.

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In this regard, sociologist Anita Chan, an expert on Chinese labor, makes a significant observation in her recent review of the film in the online journal, Made in China. Chan notes that the culture clash depicted in American Factory is both a clash between “American” and “Chinese” cultures but, more importantly, also a clash between workplace industrial relations cultures, which are “borne out of management philosophy, institutional arrangements, and workers’ awareness.” While people in the film, from workers on the factory floor to middle-level management to Cao Dewang himself, speak in a language of ethnonational cultural dispositions and national pride, Chan points out that in the end, the real problems, the ones that the unionization effort tried to address, revolve around different ways of managing the workforce.

But when push comes to shove in the fight to unionize at Fuyao’s Dayton factory, Chan concludes,

The only feature of the American system that Cao and his team ultimately incorporated into their management philosophy was the American anti-union culture. Unlike in China, which strives for harmonious workplace relations by incorporating and controlling the trade union, the American norm is an adversarial anti-union approach, and Cao was quick to understand and adopt this feature of American management.

It is this culture clash, between ideas about and tactics for managing workplace relations, that renders American Factory so brutally familiar and thus painful, but necessary, viewing. In the end, the unionization effort at Fuyao America was brought down not by Chinese cultural differences but by enlisting the services of distinctly American anti-union consultants. Conversely, in Fuyao’s China operations, the trade union is fully integrated into the company’s management system. This arrangement is standard practice in China, where there is only one legally-mandated trade union in the country. (As an aside, in another commentary on the film published in the same journal, Hong Zhang details how the Chinese Communist Party apparatus within Fuyao serves as the de facto human resources department for the company’s operations.)

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What would we make of this culture clash if we followed a screening of American Factory with the 2017 independent Chinese documentary, We, the Workers (dir. Wen Hai), which depicts the efforts of labor rights activists in south China to organize factory workers independently from the government trade union? Or with the 2014 documentary Cotton Road (dir. Laura Kissel), in which we follow cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai and back, across the many lives who are connected to global trade but who never meet one another? One can hope that the longer-lasting impact of American Factory will be to raise eyebrows and questions not at “Chinese” or “American” ways of working or living, but rather at the global capitalist labor system itself that knows no national boundaries, let alone “cultural” borders.

One thought on “American Factory

  1. Excellent review, Jenny – thanks for this. I really appreciate the way you point out the different work cultures/mentalities that the film highlights, which get conflated with “national” and/or racial differences within the film.

    On a different note, I want to thank Patrick O’Dell for sharing his thoughts on this film with me, which helped inform my review.

    Like

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