American Factory (Steven Bognar/Julia Reichert, 2019, USA)

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory is an excellent exploration of the impacts of globalization. The film is notably the first film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. While the film is broadly sympathetic with labor, it refrains for the most part from editorializing, instead approaching the subject matter with a direct cinema style that eschews narration and lets the subjects speak for themselves. The film explores the Chinese company Fuyao’s project to build an American factory in a former General Motors plant, with a mix former GM employees and imported Chinese labor.
The film finds its greatest strength in examining the differences between American and Chinese culture. Chairman Cao, president of Fuyao, views his project as a mission to change America’s view of the Chinese and China in general. This fusion of nationalism with capitalism under the backing of the Chinese Communist Party becomes deeply evident in a humorous segment of the film in which a group of American Fuyao employees visit the companies’ factories in China. The American employees - mostly overweight and casually dressed - seem painfully out of place amidst the thin and suited or uniformed Chinese employees. The American employees watch with awe as some of the factory employees perform a military-style ritual affirming their allegiance to Fuyao.
American Factory does a good job at humanizing its subjects, particularly as the film begins to document Fuyao America employees’ attempt to unionize. The filmmakers are careful to hear the voices of the Chinese, the American employees who want to unionize, and the American employees who don’t want to unionize. The end result is perhaps not surprising. The film tacks on a brief note about automatization, although this is left mostly unexplored. Overall, American Factory is a fair and even-handed exploration of the differences between China and the US.



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