The Obama’s Higher Ground Productions Showcases Blue Collar America In American Factory- A Review Of American Factory

American Factory (2019) Netflix

The Story

American Factory is a compelling documentary about Fuyao, a Chinese glass company, and their quest to open a factory in America. As the documentary plays out, it becomes apparent to Fuyao, the American/Chinese workers, and the viewers that there are some striking differences between work-life balance in China vs America.

The documentary takes place primarily near Dayton, Ohio at a now closed General Motors plant. The closing of the plant meant the loss of the local citizen’s livelihood…that is until Fuyao comes to town.

Fuyao purchased the defunct plant and put a number of the former employees back to work. At the new plant, the former GM workers are forced to work side by side with the Chinese transplants who, much like the Americans, are there to provide a better life for their families. For the American workers, this meant reporting back to a non-union job where they would be earning less than half of their hourly rate that GM paid. The Chinese workers on the other hand came to the plant for an opportunity at a better life than the ones they left in China (even with the sacrifice of not seeing their family).

Throughout the documentary you will follow Fuyao’s chairman, Cao Dewang, and a number of his employees, as they travel back and forth from China to Ohio. When the two sets of workers discover how the other group lives and works, their differences come to a head by way of a vote to unionize. Out of the pages of an American History book, Fuyao does what it can to sway voters belief of the need for unionization by implementing pay increases, awarding trips to China, and verbal compliments.

The documentary reveals the contrasts between working in China vs in the United States. Even with these differences, the human spirit shines bright with many of the Chinese workers and American workers befriending and supporting each other during their time together.

The end of the documentary shows the inevitable future for a large number of factory workers, no matter their location, with the implementation of automation.

The District Decision

As you could imagine, there are some striking differences between working at a factory in the United States vs one in China. In an effort to illustrate these differences, American Factory uses scenes from Fuyao’s plant in China with a contrasting view from the Ohio plant.

One of these contrasting moments shows a military style line inspection at the start of the Chinese work day…a day that requires 12 hours of work with 6 days on and only 1 day off. A few minutes later you’re then looking back at the Dayton, Ohio plant where the start of the day is far from militaristic or structured.

It’s no secret that the quality of working conditions is far from ideal at a number of plants in countries outside of the United States, but certain scenes of American Factory shine a whole new light on the topic. Not only do you see the poor working conditions of the featured Chinese plant, but you also see the complete disregard that the owner and executives have for the worker’s well-being both in the United States and in China. At one point, Cao Dewang, gets visibly frustrated at the placement of a fire alarm/detector, a federally regulated mandate. Dewang even suggests placing the detector low to the ground and behind a filing cabinet. Other scenes show Chinese workers separating broken glass without puncture proof gloves and some workers having to work multiple shifts in rooms that reach well above 100 degrees. American Factory demonstrates a real life example of the phrase “the rich get richer” (as you will see by Dewang’s private jet, monthly trips to/from China, self-portraits, and an office that would make any CEO jealous) on the backs of the poorly compensated laborers.

In my opinion, American Factory is a politically driven documentary. With that being said, I also believe that the film is directed in a way that avoids lopsidedness towards one side or another. The film gives you an opportunity to see the harsh reality of (some) international factory work. When those same methods come to the United States it’s met with a work force willing to fight for their rights. I applaud the directors for showing multiple angles to the complex world of factory work.

Final Grade: The District Decision for American Factory is that the film is Worth It with a final grade of B.

The District Decision Grading Scale: Skip It (not worth the watch), Niche (worth the watch for those interested in the topic), Background Noise (worth having on while doing other activities), Worth It (worth your time), Classic (one of the best examples of the documentary genre).

District Facts

  • American Factory is the first film from Higher Ground Productions. Higher Ground Productions is the creation of Michelle and Barack Obama.
  • The film was distributed by Netflix in 2019.
  • American Factory was filmed for 2 years, 2015-2017, following a number of Fuyao employees and executives between China and the United States.
  • The Moraine, Ohio plant featured in the film was also the focus of another documentary: 2009’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.
  • Fuyao currently operates 4 plants in the United States.
  • According to Fuyao the company received the following awards from their American customers: 2011-2015 Supplier of the Year (GM), 2011, 2015 Quality Award (Chrysler), 2015 Global Excellence (Ford). After you watch the documentary, you may find some of these a bit ironic.
Director(s)Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Production
Higher Ground Productions, Participant Media
Distributor Netflix
Run Time110 Minutes
Year2019

Awards and Accolades

GroupCategoryYearResult
Academy AwardsBest Documentary 2020Won
Directors GuildDocumentaries2020Won
Producers GuildOutstanding Producers2020Nominated
Cinema For PeaceMVP Documentary2020Nominated
Independent SpiritBest Documentary 2020Won
Sundance FestivalDirecting2019Won

More about The Documentary District: We are a team dedicated to reviewing documentary films and shows in an effort to promote independent film making. We also provide information on where to stream new documentaries as they become available. If you are a film maker and want us to review or feature your work, you can E-mail us at DocumentaryDistrict@gmail.com.

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