American Factory review – a sobering documentary by the Obamas

the Guardian | 8/15/2019 | Peter Bradshaw


‘There is no magic wand to bring back jobs,” said US president Barack Obama in 2016. Now he has returned to this sombre realist theme with the first documentary feature in his post-presidential career as a film producer (with Michelle Obama) for Netflix, under the banner of their company Higher Ground Productions. It’s a workplace study from directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert that is absorbing, discomfiting and desperately sad. American Factory is incidentally another example of how “American” as the first word of a title supercharges the movie with irony (American Hustle, American Gangster, American Psycho). The factory in question is far from American.

In 2014, the Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao bought a former General Motors car plant in Dayton, Ohio, that had been closed since 2008 – promising investment and hundreds of new jobs. Fuyao and its chairman Cao Dewang (referred to as “Chairman Cao”) were rewarded with euphoric praise – in a state that had been crushed by unemployment – and more than $6m in subsidies from Ohio state taxpayers.

Film - Mood - Workforce - Gratitude - Culture

The film shows how this good mood curdled as the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions. The management’s main concern was to crush any hint of a union. There is a major diplomatic incident at the opening ceremony when the Democratic Ohio state senator Sherrod Brown refers to the desirability of unions in his speech, to the displeasure of the Chinese management.

The publicity for American Factory has suggested that this is a tragicomic story of a culture clash. Maybe. We are perpetually presented...
(Excerpt) Read more at: the Guardian
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