‘American Factory’ Review: The New Global Haves and Have-Nots
A documentary looks at what happened when a Chinese company took over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio.
“The most important thing is not how much money we earn,” the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang says in “American Factory” soon before we see him on a private jet. What’s important, he says, are Americans’ views toward China and its people.
In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.
The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor.
“American Factory” opens with a brief, teary look back at the plant’s closing that sketches in the past and foreshadows the difficult times ahead. The story proper begins in 2015 amid the optimistic bustle of new beginnings, including a rah-rah Fuyao presentation for American job seekers. Bognar and Reichert, who shot the movie with several others — the editor is Lindsay Utz — have a great eye for faces and they quickly narrow in on the range of expressions in the room. Some applicants sit and listen stoically; one woman, her hand over her mouth, gently rocks in her seat, tapping out a nervous rhythm as the Fuyao representative delivers his pitch.
With detail and sweep, interviews and you-are-there visuals, the filmmakers quickly establish a clear, strong narrative line as the new enterprise — Fuyao Glass America — gets off the ground. The optimism of the workers is palpable; the access the filmmakers secured remarkable. Bognar and Reichert spent a number of years making “American Factory,” a commitment that’s evident in its layered storytelling and the trust they earned. American and visiting Chinese workers alike open their homes and hearts, including Wong He, an engaging, quietly melancholic furnace engineer who speaks movingly of his wife and children back in China.
His is just one story in an emotionally and politically trenchant chronicle of capitalism, propaganda, conflicting values and labor rights. As the factory ramps up, optimism gives way to unease, dissent and fear. Some workers are hurt, others are at risk; glass breaks, tempers fray. Both the Chinese and American management complain about production and especially about the American workers who, in turn, seem mainly grateful for a new shot.