‘American Factory’ documents workplace culture wars

The new documentary tracks the integration of a Chinese company into an old General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio.

This article contains spoilers for “American Factory.”

When filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert introduced “American Factory” to their Missouri Theatre audience at True/False, they spoke about how the film had a strong connection to the Midwest.

Having premiered at Sundance where it was picked up for distribution by Netflix, the observational documentary tracks Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang as he brings his Fuyao glass company to the town of Dayton, Ohio. Some of the perspectives covered are by those who formerly worked in the General Motors plant that became Fuyao Glass America and how the change has impacted their lives.

As chairman Cao sets up shop in Dayton, residents of the community are just happy to get back to work, even if it means a substantial pay cut. Their energized attitudes fade as they are placed alongside Chinese workers who move at a much quicker rate. Before long, this kink in the production line causes profit to decrease and thus ensues madness. The threat of a union looms larger on the chairman, as he reorganizes his top officials so that there are no American leaders and starts passing out excuses for terminations. What was once a positive project aimed at revitalizing the area becomes a hotbed of cultural conflict sparking national media attention.

Sprinkled throughout the film are moments of genuine connection between the two cultures. Often very funny, they highlight the radical differences between us while showing the ways we are alike. All of the workers are trying to support themselves and their families. Some of the Americans learn that while they are working hard for less, the Chinese are working harder and away from their families entirely. The Chinese also learn that, “In America, you can talk badly about the president.” Clash after clash, the cultural divide is never better demonstrated than in a section of the film where some workers are flown to headquarters in Shanghai and partake in a company-sponsored event. Let’s just say the YMCA is still not safe to do in public. Or in China.

There are some fly-on-the-wall moments in this movie that make it easy to get wrapped up in each new development of the workplace saga. That so many people are candidly observed in these odd situations speaks to how well the filmmakers did taking the pulse of the company. They may not all get a bonafide arch in the story, but I think that has more to do with this being a case of constant transition than any fault of the filmmakers. Bognar and Reichert have gathered information about the current state of Chinese and American industry relations in the form of visual footage that transcends any easy characterizations of its subjects.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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