Netflix earned itself another Oscar through the Obama-produced documentary American Factory. Here’s why you should give this doc a shot.
In American Factory, the Netflix film produced in part by the Obamas that just won Best Documentary at the Oscars, no one wins.
From the frustrated plutocrat running the new Fuyao plant in Dayton, Ohio, that serves as the setting for the film to the entry-level employees barely scratching by to the Chinese workers attempting to manage them, there are as many cracks in Fuyao’s plan to take over the abandoned General Motors plan in Dayton as there are in the first several batches of windshields that break during production.
Some of these issues are simple business breakdowns. Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. breaks into the American market seemingly without any regard for workplace safety or labor laws, a reality filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar depict mercilessly by taking us through the beats of worker safety manager Jeff’s job. Jeff hears from workers who are over-taxed or feel infringed upon and has few answers for them.
Interviews with employees solidify the idea that things are being run questionably: Furnace cleaners spend their time in 200-degree heat while others spend their day picking up broken glass. The directors also show meetings among higher-ups who openly mock Americans’ need for days off and short shifts. There’s friction.
The other cracks are interpersonal. American Factory is perhaps at its best when it shows the clash of cultures at Fuyao. Again, these clashes are not captured in an attempt to place blame on the part of either the Chinese workers or American workers. Still, some of the most immersive and eye-opening scenes of the film come when American executives travel to Shanghai to visit with their Chinese counterparts.
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They are greeted by tireless workers at the Chinese Fuyao plant, as well as a legitimate dance performance featuring bizarre sing-songy Fuyao propaganda. The shock is stronger in these scenes than within the factory. None of the American executives can make sense of the extravaganza.
The deftness it took from Reichert and Bognar to bring us into this world without picking a villain is what makes American Factory special. They capture the minuscule and the macro with equal compassion.
We see a longtime veteran of the GM plant who moved to the Fuyao plant when it opened and suffered a gnarly leg injury that required surgery. His story and others are shot intimately, with their voices providing narration as we watch them at work.
When the story moves to the fight to unionize and Fuyao’s pushback, the film adjusts its scope and shows us that side of the business, too. Reichert and Bognar go inside the negotiations to show the guerilla persuasion tactics employed by the company to derail its workers’ efforts. It’s one of the rare times they make a sweeping point, noting how organizations contracted to dissuade potential unions are part of a growing industry that corresponds with a downtick in unions. If there’s any villain here, it’s them.
The primary force of antagonism throughout American Factory can’t be considered a villain because it’s not a person. Automation only creeps in at the tail end of the film, but the idea is introduced so matter-of-factly you realize it’s been there the whole time. Set during late 2016 and early 2017, the backdrop of the presidential election makes it an even more interesting film to watch four years later as the nation is taken over by national politics once more. Whereas initially we are made to believe the Chinese are overtaking Dayton through the Fuyao factory and competing with Americans for these jobs, it becomes clear quickly that the machines are on their way.
Again, the filmmakers overlay text to emphasize the point here. Because the film is not narrated and is so honest in its tone, these moments do feel very on the nose. The theme is clear without the film explaining itself, spelling out what’s going on detracts from the elegance of the quieter moments.
Not every documentary needs to serve as a referendum on society. And in many ways, the film truly is just the story of Dayton this decade. It’s also the story of how for every GM, there is now a Fuyao, a trend not specific at all to Dayton. At the same time, though, Reichert and Bognar’s lucid retelling of the lives of ordinary workers serve as fertile ground for understanding America’s changing economy and society. The reporting and filmmaking in American Factory are exemplary because they are tiny and pronounced all at once.