Netflix's Obama-Approved Documentary 'American Factory' Hits Close to Home
There's a small moment in American Factory, the award-winning Sundancedocumentary favorite that arrived this week on Netflix, when a frustrated employee addresses the camera and explains the central tension that defines her job at the auto glass factory in Dayton, Ohio where she works. On one hand, Fuyao, the Chinese corporation that owns the facility, wants higher "numbers" and greater output; on the other hand, there's a quality team that wants "customer satisfaction" and the best product they can make. The woman presses her hands closer together and says to the camera, "We're in the middle."
More than anything, American Factory is a great movie about feeling that squeeze. When Fuyao first purchases the plant, which used to be a GM factory that closed its doors in December of 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession, the company brought a sense of joy, renewal, and hope to a southern Ohio community left rattled by the shifting winds of the economy. At least, that's the image the company is selling to potential workers, local politicians, and the national media. In its opening sections, American Factory plays like a light-hearted, semi-comic fable, the new corporate overlords beaming in to revive the town while taking part in a larger project of cultural exchange and globalized harmony. What could go wrong?
Unsurprisingly, the story soon takes a harsher turn, which Ohio-based filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert capture with nuance, compassion, and a finely tuned sense of irony. Safety issues arise, miscommunication occurs, discussions of unionization grow louder and louder during a period when union membership has been at a devastating all-time low. Facing concerns about productivity, the underpaid American workers we meet in brief but deeply personal and poignant vignettes struggle under the corner-cutting, hard-driving management style of the Fuyao executives, who perceive the American workers as lazy and entitled. "If a union comes in, I'm shutting down," says Fuyao's chairman Cho Tak Wong during a meeting of company leaders at one point. "They keep interfering with my production. Slowly bleeding money is even worse than a union."
That moment is reflective of the type of incredible access Bognar and Reichert had in the making of the documentary. (According to an interview with Vox, they filmed at the factory for around three years and shot over 1,200 hours of footage.) The pair's fly-on-the-wall approach puts you in union organizing sessions, higher-level cost-cutting discussions, and in the homes of both American and Chinese employees. There's even a trip to China around the mid-way point, which culminates with the visiting American workers performing a rousing edition of the Village People's "YMCA" for a cheering crowd at the company's New Year party.
As the union election draws closer, the moments of absurd humor fall away and the tension rises. While left-leaning viewers will have no trouble identifying villains in the story, particularly when you hear the audio of a paid anti-union consultant making a pitch to workers in a closed-door meeting, the tone is predominantly even-keeled and measured. Even the chairman gets to give a self-reflective monologue in voiceover towards the end of the film, pondering if China's recent economic success has perhaps damaged the environment and changed the country for the worse in some ways. It's a profoundly empathetic movie, one that's able to provide a holistic look at an organization while still making a larger argument about the perils of capitalism.
In some ways, that argument might be complicated by the way American Factory is being rolled out: The documentary is the first release from Higher Ground, the production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama in partnership with Netflix. I saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, before it was acquired by Netflix and when it had no ties to the former President, who appears be our first ex-President of the "content-creation" era. (No, George W. Bush's paintings don't count.) For some viewers, the Obama stamp of approval will be a key selling point. At the same time, it's a movie that deserves to be seen by viewers of all political persuasions. If you've ever felt the squeeze, American Factory is speaking your language.