American Factory (2019)
User ReviewsReview this title
Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you'll likely be re-defining the word.
This unique business model came with good intentions on both sides. The differences that start out as kind of funny and well-intentioned turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These 'temporary' transplants must spend two years away from their family as they try to make sense of an unfamiliar land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different ... they don't work as hard, they don't dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won't work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers - a point that's difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.
U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the 'rust belt', the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China's Workers' Union functions in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual - one even in a JAWS t-shirt - while the lean and fit Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.
What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one's work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It's a fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they'll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month! As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can't spell Fuyao with "fu". The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship and culture, and the contrast might be more relevant today than ever before.
While it is great to see the discussions about the economic and culture-related issues, such as:
- How much of FGA workers' 50% wage-drop in Ohio is due to the emergence of technology and how much due to globalization?
- how come the FGA workers in Ohio and in China have such different values and cultures;
- how the workers in China are not individualistic, and they seem ok to work 12 hours daily and only visit their family once per year, and sync their every step to the corporate choreography;
- what the labor union's role should or should not be;
- how to view the businessman/the Chairman's life's shrine being "just work";
- how robots are replacing humans in doing repetitive jobs;
the bigger questions at the society and humanity level beg for deeper discussions, such as:
- Who are these workers on the manufacturing floors in Ohio and in China?
- Should corporations be held accountable for the long-term welfare of the employees and the community, other than the profitability interest of its shareholders?
- What is the right society that we all should aim at in the near future, as the emerging robotic technologies are projected to replace over 375 million jobs globally within the next 10-15 years?
The workers on the manufacturing floors in the US and China are someone's mom/dad/daughter/son, and they are part of our fellow earthlings, and what they want is similar to what all human beings want: to provide for their family, and many of them did not and do not have much choice which put them where they were and where they are. Everyone deserves a fair chance to start with their life, and deserves a life with basic dignity and with basic needs met.
Then how do we build a society that gives a fair chance to all for a decent life with dignity along their life journey on earth?
In today's fast-evolving technology-driven society where robots are replacing humans for better efficiency and profitability, corporations are operated to optimize profit without adequate regulations that hold them accountable for the long-term welfare of employees and the community/society. How could we enhance and improve our regulations to avoid a dystopia society where hundreds of millions of humans will end up having no access to resources or fair opportunities to provide for a decent life or for their family?
As the clashes continue to escalate among major economic powers for gains to one's own country, we all owe to ourselves and our children a better/safer/healthier/more efficient future by finding a solution for countries/ethnic groups/religious groups to co-exist in peace, to collaborate instead of confrontation, to progress toward a better society that provide basic education and a fair chance to everyone, treat each other with decency, dignity, respect, mutual understanding, and love one another who all dwell on earth as all Gods ask of their believers.
The critical question is: can we, or are we, the so-called most intelligent species on earth, capable to set ourselves to the right pathway before too late when we may end up destroying the good life and potentially the entire earth that we live on?
The factory workers in the movie is no longer the average Chinese experience. Chinese middle class now bigger than the entire population of US, and you cannot became a middle class just by doing a entrance level job in a factory.
Factory workers can became middle class just like anywhere else in the world, one needs to out work or out perform their piers. With promotion, comes easier work, more flexible timetable and better pay.
Second, Chinese put all their faith on the next generation. In China, if you don't want to just be a factory worker, you need to study hard, get into a good University and study a promising major. One of the bigger difference I felt in America, is that, people always talking about what a great time they had in College. Which is weird, because there is already a lot of job hunter pressure when you study in a Chinese University.
Third, there is a strong start-up culture in China. Besides Silicon Valley, Americans seems to forget they can just start their own business. In the documentary, one pro-union speaker says his daughter is making more money than him doing nails. If he really thinks nail salon is an easy job and he would be better at it, why doesn't he just open his own nail salon. That is what a under-appreciated Chinese would do.
In conclusion, what American workers are experiencing is nothing more than just good old capitalism. China did once believed in Socialism and Communism, but every western country seems to reject the idea and their people believe they worth more than what the society can measure. So today, when China piratically abandoned Communism, western country needs to step up their Capitalism, or else they will loss the game. The game of prosperity. (And this is not a threat. From the bottom of my heart, I hopes Americans can continue to be rich and free. After all, I am living in America now)
At the Q&A at the premiere at IFC Center, co-director Julia Reichert was at pains to stress that the film was never meant to be polemical, that this was an effort to immerse and learn. While some of the silllier aspects of both cultures, (but especially the regimented and self-congratulatory aspects of the Chinese). come through with particular acuity, you can't help buy muse on how Americans have acted with equal tin-earedness and cultural arrogance around the world, over many more decades than the Chinese have been at this game.
At the same time, America's neediness of manufacturing jobs, even if they don't pay a living wage, and the ways that so many of what we would normally consider our core values go out the window to accommodate anyone who will invest in them, come through particularly clearly. This all comes together in a fight over the establishment of a union that would protect workers' rights and uphold our eroding safety and environmental standards that is the vivid core of the movie.
A final note: This film has an extraordinarily compelling musical score by someone names Chad Cannon that propels and highlights the narrative and is amazingly effective on its own terms. Although the idiom is different, Cannon's score does for this film much of what Philip Glass's have done over the years for the films of Errol Morris, and that is high praise indeed.
I have no intention of standing on a certain position to evaluate the pros and cons of these two methods.
But there is no doubt that this video has also triggered the thinking of many Chinese including me. The maintenance of workers' rights and the importance of human rights are undoubtedly commendable.
This video has been watched by millions of people in China (perhaps pirated), and there is a lively discussion about which party (boss or staff) is doing well.
Which will help us improve the working environment and human rights in our country.
Finally, I have to say that freedom is very important, but diligence and restraint are equally important. I hope that our cultures can communicate together, enhance human rights, improve the environment, enhance human wealth and create a better home.
BTW, Hong Kong is part of China, and many videos/news released by HongKong destroyers/Western Medias are not real.
This is Obama, Bognar, and Reichert's warning to the US - we must do something about automation, especially as it pertains to the manufacturing industry, and we have to act fast. The only presidential candidate talking about automation in the same way as this documentary is Yang, and I think we would do well to listen.
I think the participants show themselves how they are perceived moreso than the directors guiding you how to perceive the subjects. Even disagreeable people also have moments where you empathize.
The negative comments on here have nothing to do with the film's content; just partisan inability to be non-partisan because Obama is tied to the project's production.
The most interesting thing is the contrast between how a an entrepreneur from (socialist) China preaches the purest form of capitalism and how a small group of American workers tried to enforce worker's union, a very socialist creation long hated by past American industrialists.
Why is this incomplete?
Because the ending makes it look like FUGA (Fuyao Glass America) was going to fail.
In reality, FUGA has become a very successful company. Without UAW interference and after firing all the troublemakers, FUGA hired a lot of young people, and turned to a profit, and contributing huge amount of taxes to support America.
I dont want to guess the intention behind why the documentary tried to shed negative lights on FUGA and didn't interview the majority of voters who voted against UAW, but it makes viewers like me wonder why do they paint a negative tone on a company that is reviving the Rust Belt while all other American companies are retreating?