'American Factory': Obamas' fly-on-the-wall documentary at Ohio plant addresses challenges of intercultural working environments
While success for the owner means inducing profits, success for American workers means better working conditions with a fair wage and success for their Chinese supervisors means fulfilling orders and abiding by the firm that brought them to the U.S.
On December 23, 2008, a General Motors factory in Dayton Ohio shut shop, rendering thousands of workers unemployed. As the freshly laid-off workers struggled to get employment in the aftermath, a Chinese billionaire brought hope to the town in the form of Fuyao Glass.
The same factory was reopened in 2010 as an automative glass manufacturing factory with Founder and CEO of Fuyao, Chairman Cao Dewang, employing 2,000 of the former GM workers and integrating 300 Chinese workers as supervisors.
Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Grounds Productions' first venture 'American Factory' is an impactful fly-on-the-wall documentary, which begins with a sense of hope but gradually explores the trepidations of American and Chinese workers as they are brought together to work under the same roof, and the challenges they face with the burgeoning work pressure and demands.
The film, while exploring the trials of a globalized working environment, also addresses capitalism, human dignity and the struggle for workers' rights. It relays a potent narrative of the tribulations of blue-collared workers as they witness a clash of varying cultures and a distinct language barrier.
The optimism of the newly-hired Ohio employees — who joined the Chinese firm despite being given less than half the wages they were getting at GM — begins to gradually wane when confronted with the Chinese firm's values of brutal working conditions. Where Chinese workers are instilled with unflinching loyalty to the company, as they are taught to attach its value to the glory of their nation, the Americans question authority and begin floating the idea of a union to represent their front.
The growing demonstration for the need of a union by American workers is eventually quashed by Fuyao when it hires consultants to discourage the economically vulnerable workers from forming one by suggesting they will be “permanently replaced.” The film also shows a stark contrast between the operations in the Fuyao unit in America and a similar city in China, where workers labor for 12 hours straight compared to the 8-hour shifts in America.
The Chinese narrative also exhibits a culture where workers toil without constant appreciation, in contrast to an American narrative where workers complain about not being appreciated for their jobs, resulting in a lack of encouragement.
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary, however, does not paint either side as unfair, the filmmakers instead portray that each side has their own view of success. While success for the owner means inducing profits, success for American workers means better working conditions with a fair wage and success for their Chinese supervisors mean fulfilling orders and abiding by the firm that brought them to the U.S.
The film also appears as a prelude to the new era of automation, resonant in one scene in the film where "slow" workers were replaced by "efficient" automative arms to do the same job, with management discussing the future firing of workers as new machines come in to replace them.
‘American Factory’ surprisingly comes across as an apolitical film. Rather than representing a political side, the Obamas' documentary focuses more on the ground and interpersonal approach of what unfolds at the factory, incorporating the feelings of blue-collar workers.
The documentary tells stories of everyday people and their struggles, a film where the protagonists are regular working-class people. Although the film takes an apolitical stance, the timing of its release on Netflix is germane to the current political scenario as the Trump administration wages a trade war with China. The administration plans to subject $300 billion worth of Chinese goods to import tariffs, beginning next month.