American Factory delves into complex struggles

By KATY OH | September 5, 2019

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UNKNOWN/CC BY-s.a 2.5 Thousands of Dayton residents were left unemployed after the General Motors plant closed.

With the 2020 presidential election around the corner and my summer mornings on the subway inundated with bolded headlines across passengers’ phones about the Democratic debates, tensions are at an all-time high. 

And at the crux of these political conversations, I hear the same scripted topics over and over: the Midwest swing states, the working class, health care, immigration and, at the end of the day, a vision for a better America.

American Factory 美国工厂 is a documentary film directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar under the production endorsement of the Obamas. 

At a time when Trump’s trade war with China has become a looming behemoth, the film’s English title, American Factory, written above its direct Chinese translation, 美国工厂, seems all the more relevant. 

The buzz-worthy film, which came to Netflix on Aug. 21, is set in Dayton, Ohio, with its initial scenes briefing over the December 2008 shutdown of the local General Motors plant. 

Under the gloomy winter sky, a group of previously employed workers stand together in silence, praying before a podium, while one person behind holds a wooden sign with the words “trabajo” and “justice” on it. 

Immediately after, we get a glimpse of a Chinese couple standing on a ledge, nonchalantly conversing about America and the Ohio homes sprawled before them. 

What ensues is a collision between these American and Chinese worlds, exposing the demanding and exasperating circumstances of the working class in an ever-growing globalization of services. 

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, plants like the Moraine Assembly Plant of General Motors in Moraine, Ohio closed, inevitably leaving thousands of households faced with a devastating unemployment crisis. 

By 2010, Chinese companies began to invest in U.S. manufacturers, generating more jobs for local residents who were previously laid off. One of those companies was Fuyao Glass America. The opening of Fuyao Glass America not only heralded more jobs for Ohio residents, but also employed workers from China to teach new employees the Fuyao method of manufacturing automobile car glass. 

The documentary film takes us in and out of training sessions for both the American and Chinese workers, who are reminded, every second of the day, that Fuyao Glass America would grow to become the “greatest project in the history of the United States.” 

In order to break cultural barriers, Chinese workers are invited to Thanksgiving parties and informational meetings where they are taught about American values, which are deemed by their supervisor as “practical and realistic.” 

America is, according to him, a “place you let your personality run free.” 

The man behind Fuyao Glass America is Chairman Cao Dewang, a businessman who is first shown walking down the stairs of his luxurious airplane, greeting a group of American managers before making it clear that Fuyao Glass America would be an equitably American co-run business. 

While touring the factory, he shakes hands with passing workers and makes a few adamant suggestions about the aesthetics of certain safety signs, seemingly offering rather cordial gestures. 

However, when U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown unexpectedly makes a public comment about endorsing labor unions during a grand opening ceremony, there seems to be a breach of communication. 

For Cao, Fuyao Glass America, although backed by American employees, would unquestionably model China’s Fuyao business model, which boasts “diligence, simplicity, learning, innovation” and, overwhelmingly emphasized just as often, profit. 

At first, a company that championed itself as a bridge between two cultures and provided opportunities for people who needed jobs seemed like a promising setup. 

But with cultural and language barriers, miscommunication, and increasingly hazardous working conditions, conflicts escalated. 

Workers became increasingly frustrated, with both American and Chinese workers often turning to vocally expressing their emotionally charged, prejudiced opinions about each of their cultural differences. 

Amid moments of tension, the documentary film provides deeper glimpses into the hardships both American and Chinese workers face alike. 

We are introduced to Shawnea Rosser, a glass inspector whose $29-dollar wage at the old General Motors plant suddenly downgraded to a $12.84-wage at Fuyao Glass America, a change that has strained living conditions for her family. 

We then see Wong He, a furnace engineer who makes ends meet by eating two Twinkies for lunch each day in order to financially support his wife and two kids back in China. 

What was by far the most interesting part of the documentary for me was when a group of American workers were invited to the Fuyao factory in Fujian, China. For them, this was an opportunity to observe Chinese working conditions. 

And at the end of the day, they attended a ceremonial performance hosted by women dressed in theatrical costumes, chanting songs about the greatness of Fuyao. 

The event also opens up the stage to a joint sing-along to what is often thought of as the most quintessentially American song, “YMCA.” 

One of the American visitors becomes emotional, tearing up as he looks into the camera and says, “We’re one big planet… a world somewhat divided. But we’re one.” 

While the concept of unity is persistently implanted in the minds of both American and Chinese workers back at Fuyao Glass America, it begins to falter as the American workers begin to feel overworked, undercompensated and gradually concerned about the future of their jobs. 

In a series of voting campaigns advocating the creation of a labor union, workers under the factory’s scrutiny are fired, American supervisors are replaced by Chinese leadership, and automated machines slowly take away more jobs.

In American Factory: A Conversation with the Obamas, a separately published interview between Michelle Obama, Barack Obama and the directors of the film themselves, we get to learn why the former U.S. president and first lady were so invested in shedding light on a particular story like this. 

Michelle Obama discussed how the opening scenes, where we see the workers in their uniforms on a Midwestern winter day, resonated with her own personal story. 

“That was my story. It’s my background. That was my father. What gave him pride and a sense of purpose was that uniform, and that job, and that ability to pay the bills, and to, you know, send us to college,” Michelle Obama explained. “And that was reflected in this film.” 

On top of the other countless campaigns and initiatives the Obamas have established after leaving the White House, the couple hopes to continue their passion and support for conversations in the form of documentaries and films. 

That is why they have launched Higher Ground Productions, their own production company which, in addition to producing American Factory, is currently collaborating with Netflix to produce many other films. These include a documentary on Frederick Douglass and a family show titled Listen to Your Vegetables & Eat Your Parents, among other new projects. 

A new clip from Netflix features former U.S. President Barack Obama speaking about the rationale that is driving the creation of the new production company. 

“We all have a sacred story in us, right? A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organize our lives,” he said. “A good story is a good story. If it’s a documentary like yours or if it’s a scripted story that helps people understand something they didn’t understand before, we want to see if we can give voice to it.”

At a time when political discourse often overshadows the daily realities of people and communities across the world, it is indeed the power of films like these that help us to delve into deeper, more intimate and more authentic perspectives about contemporary issues.

While the documentary film ends without a firm resolution, it leaves us with images of Wong He, once again, as he visits an American co-worker at his household farm. 

Although there is minimal conversation, a hint of an unspoken, commiserating and empathetic bond is there — two men, each working to provide for their loved ones, are striving for the happiness they deserve. 

While American Factory seeks to unveil the complexities of both America and China’s working class, it digs deeper into larger conversations about people and the often unseen struggles of life.

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