American Factory

 

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A compelling account of a Chinese business coming to Ohio and developing in unforeseen ways.

 
American Factory
 

Although they are well established in America, the work of the documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert is hardly known here but they are accomplished filmmakers as this latest piece of theirs amply confirms. The factory of the title is in Dayton, Ohio and exists in a building once run by General Motors which was closed in 2008. Given the vital role that the business had played in providing employment locally, it was an occasion for rejoicing when seven years later the site was taken over by the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang in order to reopen it as a factory to provide glass for cars under the name Fuyao Glass America.

 

Old film footage taken at the 2008 closure is seen at the start of this film, but what follows shot in the period 2015 to 2017 finds Bognar and Reichert charting the subsequent history of the plant having established access and the right to make their film with full independence (at the outset Cao may have had in mind a film that would be propaganda for his company but he was presumably so confident of a positive picture emerging that he yielded control to the filmmakers).

 

As it turned out, the factory struggled at first to run profitably and some of the Americans employed there in leading roles alongside Chinese who had been brought in were sent out to Cao’s headquarters at Fuqing in Fujian Province: the purpose of this trip to China was to give them tips on how to inspire the other American employees and turn things around. The fact that the business is now profitable might suggest a success story but the cost of that achievement, the conditions under which the employees were expected to work, the limited pay, the hostility of the company to any involvement by the United Auto Workers union and the ruthless dismissal of those seen as trouble makers emerge clearly and chillingly here.

 

However, there is no sense that the film is slanted in its approach: rather it is a case of Bognar and Reichert echoing the style of famed documentarist Frederick Wiseman in making a film that is essentially observational. Viewers are simply invited to draw their own conclusions, but in this expertly edited film what is recorded has all the force of good storytelling, the only exceptions coming late on (the issues around voting for union involvement are perhaps allowed to take up a little too much footage in the second half and the last few minutes although bringing up a very valid point about the increasing significance of automation in factory work would benefit from being more succinct).

 

Overall, however, this is both impressive (the fine colour photography gains from being seen on the big screen) and informative. In particular the scenes shot in China and showing the total indoctrination of the employees there who put the company ahead of family life and accept a regime in which overtime work is mandatory are absolutely eye-opening - even more so than the frank business meetings in America during which Cao doesn’t conceal for a moment the precedence he gives to company profits over concern for the quality of life of his employees. In this film the facts speak for themselves and powerfully so.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Cao Dewang, John Gauthier, Dave Burrows, Wong He, Robert Allen, Daquin ‘Leon’ Liang, Rebecca Ruan O’Shaughnessy, Rob Haerr, Jill Lamantia, John Crane, Cynthia Harper, Shawnea Rosser.

 

Dir Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, Pro Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, Jeff Bognar and Julie Parker Benello, Ph Steven Bognar, Aubrey Keith, Julia Reichert, Jeff Reichert and Erick Stoll, Ed Lindsay Utz, Music Chad Cannon.

 

Participant Media/Higher Ground Productions-Netflix.
113 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 16 August 2019. No Cert.