Through a Glass Darkly 

The documentary American Factory tells frustrating truths about jobs and work.

click to enlarge On the factory floor in An American Factory.

On the factory floor in An American Factory.

Last month, the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan screened Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's American Factory, a new documentary about what happens when a Chinese company moves into a defunct General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio, to make glass for the auto industry, and also to provide some 2,000 jobs.

The Traverse City festival was the ideal place to showcase this movie because the doc's scope and point of view fit in with those of the festival's co-founder, filmmaker Michael Moore. In fact, the basic bulletin in American Factory is essentially the same as in Moore's Roger & Me (1989) and the rest of his filmography. Working folks beware. The old-fashioned factory worker is an endangered species. Forget about joining the middle class. Your jobs are going away and they'll never come back.

Nothing new about that revelation. The doc by co-directors Bognar (Personal Belongings) and Reichert (Union Maids) is the first title for Netflix by Higher Ground Productions, the company started by former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama. It illuminates the condition of contemporary America by showing the day-to-day worries of the seldom-heralded, much-sought-after ordinary working stiff. That's not all. In its candid view of one factory we get a close-up report on economic globalization, cross-cultural relations, organized labor and its detractors, the latest corporate management techniques, the comparative class systems of the U.S. and China, and the inescapable reach of classic capitalism. Bad news all around.

The corporate brass of Fuyao Glass America give their Chinese management team a crash course on the essential American character, as they see it. "America is a place to let your personality run free," says the leader of a training class. You can say anything you want and no one will object. In keeping with "the American sense of casualness," the locals "dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives." Even more cutting is the notion that Americans are "showered with encouragement" from childhood, and so "everyone who grows up in the U.S. is overconfident." The report goes on: "Americans love to be flattered to death. Donkeys like being touched in the direction their hair grows."

After a few months of laboring side by side, the newcomers and the natives form definite opinions about each other. "They have fat fingers," complains one Chinese manager. "We have to train them over and over." Chairman Cao, the company's big boss, is having trouble justifying his investment: "American workers are not efficient. And their production is low." Meanwhile the U.S. employees feel colonized ("They don't respect you"). And Cao's insistence on reconfiguring the plant to create better feng shui is greeted by his American team with the sort of furtive smirks that would accompany the announcement of a corporate policy on flying saucers. Not even a Thanksgiving dinner party with turkey and guns (the latter an absolutely forbidden pleasure in China) seems to soothe the uneasiness.

The deal-breaker arrives when the employees force a vote on joining the United Auto Workers. The irony of a company from the People's Republic of China — a theoretically communist country — coming out against a labor union is rich and delicious for the movie audience, but not so nice for the pro-union workers, who either get fired or replaced by robots.

Of course we know how this is going to end, but it's still fun to watch the expressions on the faces of the Ohio rank-and-file workers brought to Fuyao's headquarters in Fuqing, Fujian province to glimpse Chinese corporate life up close, from military-style form-ups every morning to a company floor show with ludicrous production numbers. These cross-cultural skirmishes may be amusing, but in the end we can see there's almost no difference between the objectives of businesspeople in China and those of their North American counterparts. Nothing stands in the way of the profit motive, and American Factory never lets us forget that.

American Factory, a Netflix original production, opened August 21 on that platform and also at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas.

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