Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory opens in Moraine, Ohio with the closure of a General Motors plant. It’s the start of the decade and we observe brief glimpses of workers in tears as the final car makes its way down the assembly line. Immediately after, set several years later, we see a Chinese couple remarking on the beauty of the Midwestern plains of Moraine, ultimately shuddering as the Ohio chill settles into their marrow. American Factory details the profoundly devastating transition in which Ohio residents see the closure of an American institution and the opening of a new factory owned by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang.
Fuyao Glass America stakes its claim in the abandoned GM plant. What comes from this worksite is an interesting cultural experiment, wherein Chinese and American laborers work side-by-side on the plant’s production floor and management committees. Delusions of an equal partnership between the two sides are quickly snuffed out, with Dewang’s rhetoric often suggesting American subservience to Chinese values. In one of the film’s frequent recurring gags, we often find Dewang bluntly pronouncing his distaste for the American work ethic, with his translator frequently cushioning the intensity and hate of his rhetoric.
The opening passages of the film remarks on Moraine and Dayton’s residents’ frequent gratefulness of Fuyao opening the plant in the town. It’s not easy to dislodge the loss of the GM plant from the memory of the townspeople, but they’re certainly hoping that FGA will close that crater-sized omission to their identity. But the honeymoon period is brief, riddled by anxieties over worker safety and disappointment in wages (a woman briefly remarks on moving from a $29+ wage at GM to the lower teens at Fuyao – “I can’t buy my kids sneakers like I used to anymore”, she utters in quiet defeat). Meanwhile, Chinese workers are displaced from their families, forced to reckon with constructing a new identity within a cultural space that’s not their own.
There’s a thinly veiled xenophobic quality to American Factory that offers more than a few moments of discomfort. When a cadre of American laborers are provided with a visit to Fuyao’s China headquarters, we’re afforded with numerous scenes of ceremony and tradition without their vital context, which renders our perspective to mirror that of our over-sized, buffoonish, white male purveyors. This serves to mute the film’s more intriguing inquiries w/r/t the cultural work ethics and the re-wiring that serves to take place at FGA, particularly among American employees who begin to vocalize their desire for a union.
It’s here where American Factory is at its most riveting, where Fuyao’s Chinese upper-management attempts to suppress a union vote. They’re brutally unsubtle about it, going so far as to firing a worker for merely attending union meetings. Mandatory “informational sessions” are specifically designed to illicit fear among the workers. To see the cogs of Fuyao’s mechanism operate with such diligence to insure its continued mode of exploiting workers is absolutely terrifying in its efficiency.
But fundamentally, as intriguing and prescient as some of the cultural observations Bognar and Reichert make, this is a story about capitalism and the modes in which bourgeoisie exploit the working class. I’ve seen this play out whenever my father returned from his factory job. He worked countless hours for the same employer for 30+ years only to get fired a year before he was expected to retire. It’s no mistaking why Bognar and Reichert opt against making this a piece on the micro concerns of its working class – we catch only brief glimpses of the day-to-day agony of some of the workers in the film. Instead, this is about the process that chips away at your endurance, about the skull-clutching rhetoric that tells you to rinse-and-repeat the same thankless task ad nauseum, only to be dispensed with when they’ve capitalized on what you had to offer.