It was going to save Moraine, Ohio — that was the plan. The small town outside of Dayton had revolved around a General Motors plant the way a planet orbits around a sun. Then the factory closed two days before Christmas in 2008, the community took a major hit and the truly tough times began. Six years later, however, hope arrived in the unlikely form of the Fuyao Glass Industry Group, a Chinese manufacturing company. They were looking to expand their presence in America, and the old G.M. plant seemed like the perfect location. Local workers were hired to supplement the Chinese workers the company had brought over (or maybe it was vice versa?), and within roughly six months, the Fuyao Glass America would begin producing automobile windshields en masse. An internationally sponsored rust-belt utopia was right around the corner.
Documentarians Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert knew this area intimately; the duo had chronicled the original plant’s final days in an Oscar-nominated 2009 short titled The Last Truck. Going back to Moraine to record the city’s industrial rebirth felt like coming full circle, though not even these veteran vérité filmmakers probably knew what they would be walking into. The winner of the Documentary Best Directing award at this year’s Sundance and the first shingle-hanging project for the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions, American Factory starts as a portrait of a two-way social experiment — a mutually beneficial mix of helping hands and open palms, both calloused from labor. It ends as a testament to the immutable characters of two national identities, the common ground of global-corporate meat grinders and the notion that some gaps simply can’t be bridged. What we have here in this extraordinary case study is not just a failure to communicate but a profound cross-cultural misunderstanding. And like all of the truly great docs of the past 50 years, its ability to contain multitudes within a single captured moment speaks volumes.
There are hints of turmoil to come in a few tiny tremors near the outset: Fuyao Chairman Cao Dewang casually orders that a lobby’s fire alarms be moved, despite the fact that they’re at a regulatory height; a question about unions at a hiring meeting prompts a smiling but firm response from a recruitment rep. The idea to pair a Chinese supervisor with an American worker is supposed to foster a sense of camaraderie and catch folks up to how the company does business. Transplanted Fuyao employees are regaled with tales of Americans’ blunt honesty and told that in this country, “you can even joke about the President and no one will do anything to you.” (The shot of a Chinese laborer listening intently with a McDonald’s coffee cup in front of him is worth a thousand essays on U.S. cultural footprints.) Later, a handful of American supervisors are invited to a ceremony in the motherland, left to marvel over the moral-boosting musical numbers and cringe at a woman picking up jagged glass shards without safety gloves.
We meet a local worker who takes several of his newfound friends out to shoot guns and ride his Harley, and a Chinese lineman who misses his family back home. We also get to know several middle-management types from both countries, each struggling to understand “lazy American workers” and screaming Chinese shift leaders with no regards for standard working hours, respectively. A safety regulator futilely tries to make sure standard operating protocols are neither broken nor bent to the point of endangering lives. An obnoxious Ohio native tries to impress his corporate counterparts by joking that if he were allowed to put duct tape on workers’ mouths, their productivity would increase tenfold. (This same man tries to duplicate a pre-shift military procession used in China’s factories upon his return to Fuyao America. It does not go well.) We ride shotgun with United Auto Workers’ members attempting to organize Fuyao’s beleagured employees and a Union Avoidance Consultant paid by the bosses to dissuade folks of the same. Many of these people will be pink-slipped before the end credits roll.
Tempers flare and words are exchanged even before the inevitable boiling point, though American Factory goes to great pains to avoid easy finger-pointing or stock East-vs.-West villainy. Everyone has their reasons, even the somewhat aloof Chairman Cao; everyone has their familiar business practices that feel foreign or outright fucked-up to outsiders. The film is interested in sketching out a bigger picture of labor under pressure, but it never forgets the human beings on both side of the workforce fence. It may come down to collectivity vs. individuality, output vs. speed, numbers vs. quality, pride of achievement vs. just trying to pay your rent — but as one blue-collar grunt notes, “we’re the one caught in the middle.” Guess who’s ultimately getting the Big Squeeze? Ultimately no one emerges happy, while a somewhat chilling coda about mechanization cross-cutting between shift-exiting workers separated by an ocean suggest that a common enemy is closer than they think. American Factory sets out to chart what’s supposed to be a test run for the future of the auto industry and an example of positive international relations. It ends up capturing a cross-cultural car wreck in slow motion.