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Audrey Kupferberg: American Factory

A well-made documentary is never hard to find, because there are fair-minded filmmakers out there who can sniff out a good story and tell it in an intelligent manner.  Sometimes, a documentary is really outstanding.  That is the case with American Factory, the new project by veteran documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar.

There are many things that make American Factory special.  Its story, for instance…. In 2014, a Chinese company, Fuyau, bought up an abandoned General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio, and opened a large glass factory.  During the Clinton administration, Americans were being introduced regularly to the concept of foreign companies running U.S. businesses.  A friend of mine mentioned that in 1986, Michael Keaton starred in a comedy about the culture clash that ensues between workers and bosses when a Japanese company buys an auto plant in Pennsylvania.  But American Factory is no comedy.  It’s a factual look from within at this type of culture clash and the problems that are created as a result.

Another thing that makes this film special is its involvement with a new film production company called Higher Ground.  It’s the first project of this new group. The company, which is under the Netflix umbrella, belongs to Barack and Michelle Obama.  After representatives of Higher Ground saw American Factory at the Sundance Film Festival, where it took honors for best documentary, the Obamas met with Reichert and Bognar to make a deal to take it under their wing.  You can see American Factory on Netflix, as well as a ten-minute interview between the Obamas and the filmmakers.

One of the aims of Higher Ground is to “find new voices.”  Well, in the case of American Factory, the voices are tried and true.  Both Reichert and Bognar have long and successful track records.  Reichert, in particular, according to imdb.com, has been referred to as “the godmother of the American independent film movement.”  She has three Oscar nominations.  Her award-winning documentary, Union Maids, from 1976, follows female union organizers who reminisce about their work during the Depression and its aftermath. 

In American Factory, cameras are brought right into the glass factory and follow the workers and bosses for several months.  The Chinese boss makes it clear that there can be no union in his factory.  He will close down before allowing a union.  The workers, including Chinese laborers who have come from their home plant to guide the Americans, must follow Chinese rules or be replaced.  The Chinese have definite ideas about what it means to be American, and many of the Americans feel defenseless.  They made more than $28 per hour as GM workers, but that job is dead and gone.  Now they can make $15 per hour, or they can return to unemployment and have nothing. 

We see the Chinese approach to running a factory, its militarism, authoritarianism, and the blind respect their bosses give to the post-revolution Chinese government leaders.  We see the burgeoning fight of some workers to join the UAW.  Throughout, it is the Americans versus the Chinese.  The respect for each other is at times healthy and at other times troubling.  “They pour chemicals into the drinking water,” says one American.  Meanwhile, a Chinese boss expresses his management style, “You should touch donkeys in the direction their hair grows.” 

In the Chinese glass factory, we see men and women who stay on their knees all day on hills of broken glass.  They are separating shards by color for recycling.  Their gloves are not glass-protective. 

Is American Factory anti-Chinese propaganda?  It easily could be.  Only the highly evolved techniques of Reichert and Bognar save this film from being heavy-handed.  As a result of their expertise, American Factory is a revealing look into an important issue that needs more exploration – the direct involvement of foreign corporations in American businesses.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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