When the last truck rolled off the assembly line of the General Motors factory outside Dayton, Ohio, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were there to film it, documenting the end of a certain American dream, along with the unemployment of more than 2,000 people — down from 6,000 in more prosperous times. That was December 2008, and the resulting 40-minute short, HBO’s Oscar-nominated “The Last Truck,” served as a kind of elegy to “late capitalism” that couldn’t possibly have foreseen the next chapter of the story, which would become their feature-length follow-up, “American Factory,” snapped up by Netflix shortly after its Sundance premiere, and to which the Obamas have come on as producers after the fact.
In “American Factory,” the co-directors have a very different story to tell about the fate of the GM plant, which was reborn via an unlikely savior: In 2014, Chinese investor Cao Dewang bought the building and reopened it as Fuyao Glass America, manufacturer of windshields and auto glass. The plan was to bring over a core team of specially trained Chinese workers, and to staff the remainder of the jobs with local talent, restoring a degree of opportunity to a community that had taken a drastic turn for the worse in the wake of the financial crisis.
While nothing about Fuyao’s plan was guaranteed to work, one could hardly conceive a more relevant experiment for the modern age: a fresh upset in America’s hard-won Industrial Revolution, as thousands of people in the heart of MAGA country try to wrap their heads around having their checks signed by a Chinese employer. But if there was ever any kind of overt racism expressed toward the situation, Bognar and Reichert either had their cameras turned the other way when it happened or chose not to include it in their film, which instead focuses on optimistic, salt-of-the-earth types grateful to have their jobs back (kind of) and eager to learn new skills from their overseas co-workers (also with a pretty significant caveat).
Yes, Fuyao offered employment to a devastated community, but it did so at far lower wages than many had earned during the town’s GM heyday, and under conditions that the union never would have accepted in earlier times. The U-word, once such an important pillar of American industry, threatens to undermine Fuyao’s entire plan. It’s first uttered by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown at a ribbon-cutting ceremony where Chairman Cao and American-picked vice president Dave Burrows can be seen bristling in the audience. Later, as the idea gains momentum, Cao takes a firm stand, threatening, “If a union comes in, I’m shutting down.”
By giving nearly equal attention to the incoming Chinese laborers and a handful of Ohio-based line workers, “American Factory” reveals a stark contrast between the attitudes and expectations of each: The foreign workers make huge sacrifices, spending long hours at repetitive tasks and living four to an apartment in order to send their earnings back to their families, whereas their American colleagues seem inefficient and relatively high-maintenance. The differences are all the more pronounced as the “American Factory” crew follows a team of hand-selected supervisors on a trip to company world headquarters in Fuqing, Fujian province.
There, at Fuyao’s home base, we see how a Chinese factory operates, as workers line up with almost military precision on the job, and perform in morale-building song-and-dance pageants — which may look like some exotic form of propaganda, but aren’t so different from vintage industrial musicals in the U.S., as revealed in “Bathtubs Over Broadway.” Our ways must seem just as unusual to non-natives, judging by an inadvertently humorous/horrifying session designed to brief Chinese workers being sent to Ohio about the local culture and customs. (For such a grim film, “American Factory” can be surprisingly funny at times.)
Technically, both “The Last Truck” and this latest feature are directly concerned with the unsustainability of what we once referred to as the “American Dream” — or the sense that in the U.S., earnest workers are entitled to home ownership and a measure of personal fulfillment. Consider forklift operator Jill Lamantia, one of the Ohio natives singled out as a main subject in “American Factory.” After the GM plant closed, Jill was forced to move into her sister’s basement, but following the arrival of Fuyao, she can afford her own apartment again. As time goes on, however, she realizes that working conditions are unreasonable and becomes a vocal supporter of efforts to unionize.
Time and again over the past half-century, Americans have had to contend with the fact that they are not the only players in world business (the conflict was more pronounced with the boom of Japanese tech companies in the 1980s, and the rise of oil-rich Middle East entities over recent decades), although there’s something in the American character that digs in its heels — like a cowboy defending his turf — to resist the kind of reverse imperialism Fuyao potentially represents. While these attitudes contribute to Chairman Cao’s upsetting but perhaps inevitable decision to replace many of the workers with machines, there’s something encouraging to be found in scenes of bonding between locals and their new Chinese colleagues.
Gaining steam and sparking conversation on the festival circuit, “American Factory” is anything but a dry documentary, and will likely be a prime contender in awards season. According to press notes, Cao wanted to commission a film that would celebrate Fuyao’s historic expansion into the U.S., and though the Dayton-based duo declined to approach it in that way, they benefited from considerable access to the Fuyao founder while framing the narrative in a manner that organically represents the Rust Belt community from which they come. Of all the documentaries you see this year, this one most potently embodies the ever-changing sense of the words “Made in America.”