There's a small moment in American Factory, the award-winning Sundance documentary 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?