Eavesdropping at the Movies: 214 – American Factory

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

The latest winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar’s American Factory is a complex and brilliant examination of a clash of cultures and management styles and the diminishment of a class of workers having to grovel for jobs they cannot do without.

In 2014, the recently closed GM factory in Moraine, Ohio, was acquired and reopened by Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company; many of the former GM employees, often out of regular work since the closure in 2008, would occupy new jobs there. While the film depicts clashes between the Moraine locals and the Chinese employees flown in to supervise them, it also ensures that it doesn’t accept any indulgence in xenophobia, instead showing employees of both nationalities spending leisure time together and getting along. The film is less interested in moderating the clash between the Chinese and American supervisors – a trip to a Chinese plant, intended to show the Americans how things should be done, with robotic employees, militaristic roll calls and company songs, long hours, hardly any days off, non-existent safety standards and a focus on quantity of production over quality, is met with raised eyebrows by all but one conspicuously enthusiastic visitor. That those unconvinced bosses are eventually replaced by more Chinese overseers is no surprise – nor is it a surprise that a bubbling movement to unionise the Moraine workers is suppressed by an appeasing extra couple of dollars of pay – that still keeps salaries at half of what they’d been at GM – and an expensive propaganda campaign that successfully scares most of the employees into voting against unionisation.

There’s a vast amount going on in this concise and potent film, and Reichert and Bognar work magic to marshal a sprawling web of people, plots and themes, and to allow the workers to narrate their own story smoothly and with little outside help (just a few lines of superimposed text here and there). It’s available on Netflix, and you should not miss out on it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

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