It’s pretty frustrating when you can tell that there’s no right answers to a problem…
From Directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichart; American Factory is one of those rare beasts of film that allows the persuasive humanity in a story like this to come out that could have so quickly devolved into a political statement of a film.
In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.
It’s a film where both sides are actually right AND wrong at the same time as Reichart and Bognar crafts something that not only looks at the issues surrounding work forces in many of these American cities but also in the reality that as much as we are all the same in our hopes and dreams; any time parties enter into a partnership all the moving parts of it have to work for both sides.
While it’s got such good intentions at its start; this story is the equivalent of a slow motion car wreck where you know that both cars driving are going to end up embedded in a lamp post. As the Chinese industrialists merge with the American city, its workers and their way of life we get the cute cultural differences interactions as it all comes together and it feels nice. We get the same feeling when some of the American executives go to China to see their culture and how they work together; it all feels really sweet and genuine. But it quickly disintegrates as the culture clash goes from cute and quaint to problematic and occasionally a little nasty as neither side of this equation truly understands the other.
It’s an observational documentary to be sure and while it has a very clear side that the methods for creating jobs and the understanding of workers has to change. We get an unvarnished look at the Chinese coming in and setting up shop in the States, having no regard for how to deal with their workers, much less following things like labour laws and safety standards. While the tired yet understandable calls to unionize ultimately fall on deaf ears.
The film does suffer a little from not having a genuine subject but in reality the situation is the subject itself. Bognar and Reichart slyly stay like a fly on the wall through the proceedings and allow for a film experience that in as much as it is manipulated for the sake of the story, we still feel like we get something that is unvarnished and real. The film spends just as much time with the Chinese worker who decides that they really love America and want to stay there because they feel like they can spend more time with their family, as well as the Chinese employee who hates them all and doesn’t understand why overtime without a bump in pay isn’t mandatory. Plus the other side of the coin is with the American worker who is either happy for the job because they’ve been out of work and are embracing the realities of needing to adapt as the world does, the one who got laid off but learned a lot and the ones standing on the picket line wondering if they made the right decision, not just to strike but to take a job for a foreign company in the first place.
As much as American Factory focuses on the plight of the manual labourer who is becoming more and more obsolete in the manufacturing industry it speaks to so much more on a global level. As our world becomes more and more modernized from a technical level but blended from a cultural standpoint both of which are results of the world essentially getting smaller, it’s important to remember that culture shock goes both ways. Be it on the factory floor, the boardroom, the local community centre and even with your neighbors. In order for everyone to not just survive but to thrive in the modern landscape, finding that middle ground is more and more vital each and every day.