Documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar live in Dayton, Ohio, one of many Midwestern U.S. cities that has historically counted on manufacturing to provide gainful employment for the citizenry. When the community’s auto manufacturing facility shut its doors, in 2008, thousands were put out of work. Reichert and Bognar captured the economic body blow in the documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which earned an Academy Award nomination. Then the facility was repurposed after several years of vacancy, chosen as the flagship U.S. production center for Chinese glass manufacturing company Fuyao. For this new chapter, Reichert and Bognar again picked up their cameras.
With remarkable access and great moral clarity, American Factory traces the bumpy process of a Chinese company and U.S. workers adapting to each other. Fuyao’s founder and CEO, referred to consistently in the film as Chairman Cao, surveys his new company outpost with an air of villainous disregard, voicing his displeasure with everything from the efficiency of the workers to the placement of a security light. The employees are grateful for the new opportunity, but they’re also keenly aware that the pay is meager compared to the union-boosted wages of the bygone GM plant. Despite the stingy payroll, the Chinese managers can’t understand why the U.S. workers are disinclined to work through breaks, stay late, and punch in on the weekends. As the U.S. facility struggles to reach productivity goals and American managers are jettisoned, initial hopes rot into mutual contempt.
Reichert and Bognar share the story of the fledgling plant with sharply focused insight. There’s little doubt where their sympathies lie, even before the closing moments of the film deploy stark data about the likelihood of advancing automation technologies all but eradicating blue collar jobs in the near future. If the film sometimes lacks the riveting evenhandedness that distinguishes in its most exceptional cinematic ancestors (Barbara Kopple’s American Dream comes to mind), it still carries moments of bracing hard truth, like the U.S. manager whose vicious animosity towards union talk undergoes a sharp reversal after he’s cast aside by Chinese leadership.
And the directors bring a lovely deftness to the intermingling diverse worlds within the film, whether in taking note of the communication breakdowns that hamper production or sharing the sight of a seemingly gruff American manager moved to tears by a corporate pageant of cultural pride he watches when visiting China. Even when the standing differences turn comic — as when an American supervisor’s cynical joke about putting duct tape over the mouths of complaining workers is met with an earnest query from a Chinese counterpart about whether that approach is legally allowed in the U.S. — the moments undergird the film’s theses. With unerring methodology, the directors make certain every detail fits properly into the larger picture.
American Factory is further strengthened by exemplary cinematic craft. The film boasts lovely cinematography (credited to five individuals, including each of the directors) and crisp editing (by Lindsay Utz). Chad Cannon’s music score provides the perfect emotional undercurrent to the film, the documentary equivalent to the evocative immediacy John Williams routinely brought to fiction features. Each element further emphasizes the obvious care that went into American Factory, the clear commitment to only telling this vitally important story if it could be told well.