Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Movie Review: American Factory

American Factory **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert.
American Factory is a documentary about what happens when a Chinese company buys a closed down car factory in Dayton, Ohio and puts the auto-workers back to work – not making cars, but instead making windshields for cars. As one worker point out, she was making $29 an hour for the car company, and now makes $12 an hour making glass – but beggars can’t be choosers. It’s this, or unemployment. At its heart, the film is a culture clash documentary – although the company, Fuyao, talks a good game about making this an American Factory – for American workers, and even hires Americans to be the President and Vice President and other roles in management, the company has their way of doing things – and it isn’t the same as the way Americans do it. For instance, they will stop at nothing to stop the factory from Unionizing.
The key to the success of the film is the access that director Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have – and amazingly, continued to have over the course of filming.  They were already familiar with the area and the plant itself – they made their 2009 Oscar nominated short Doc The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant here a decade ago, and perhaps that got their foot in the door. The first half of the film feels optimistic – there are challenges in merging these two cultures, but for the most part everyone seems to be giving it their best effort.
To augment the 2,000 American workers hired, the company brings over 200 Chinese employees – apparently for two years (without their families) and no extra pay, to help train the American workers. It is amusing to see them in classes that try and teach them how to be more American – like dressing the way you want (my favorite line, “If you go to Europe on vacation, and see someone wearing sandals, shorts and jerseys, it’s an American”) – and even being allowed to joke about the President. The American workers are skeptical – but with little other choice, most of them really do try and learn what they are supposed to learn.
Over time though, the culture clash becomes more and more pronounced. In China, the workers are expected to work extremely long hours – overtime, weekends, etc. – only getting a couple days off a month if that. An American work schedule – 8 hours a day, five days a week – is nothing to them. Safety regulations are lax or non-existent in China – not so in America, much to the chagrin of Chairman Cao, the founder and CEO of the company, who doesn’t seem to understand why he needs a fire alarm in the middle of his wall, and doesn’t seem convinced when he’s told legally it needs to be there. The American workers – who remember, are used to making cars, not glass, are slower to train than they think. The factory is losing millions. As they ramp up pressure to produce, the workers get more stressed. Union talk starts happening more and more – and out in the open. The American executives are fired – replaced by Chinese management. Some of the American team leaders are brought to China to see how things are done there – and are amazed by what they see.
One of the ways you can tell that Bognar and Recihert had such great access here is because people either seem to forget they are there, and think nothing of revealing things they probably shouldn’t to them. One Chinese Executive – when talking about the Union, and how he has many ways of dealing with the pro-union workers, pulls out his phone, and shows a friendly snapshot of him with one of the guys who is pro-union, and then tells the filmmakers “He won’t be here in two weeks”. Many of the pro-union people are fired – not for wanting a Union of course, but for other reasons. We see one poor woman – a vocal proponent of the Union – being forced to do a two-man job by herself, which she thinks (probably correctly) is the company’s way of ensuring her performance suffers, and they have an excuse to get rid of her. The one thing the company doesn’t seem to provide access to the filmmakers of is the anti-Union seminars all employees are forced to take – but they get it anyway, when an employee records one. Fuyao spends over $1 million dollars on these consultants to try and keep the Unions out.
Bognar and Reichert never tell you what to think in the film – at least not overtly. And they certainly give everyone their chance to say whatever it is they want to say to them. And, in a way, no matter how we may view the Chinese management in the film and their tactics, you do have to admit that they are simply following what they know – and what works in China. And the news isn’t all bad – the company is still running, and Americans who otherwise would be unemployed have a job. The film is a modern take on a timeless problem – the conflict between management and workers. And this is a film that paints that with the complexity it deserves – and does so in a surprisingly entertaining way. Easily one of the best docs of the year so far.


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