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Film / American Factory

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"America is a place to let your personality run free."

American Factory is a 2019 film directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert.

It is a documentary about, well, a factory in America. In 2008 the General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio closes, victim of both the general decline of American manufacturing and specifically the severe economic downturn of that year, often called the "Great Recession". A few years later, however, Chinese company Fuyao Glass, which makes automotive glass, re-opens the factory and replaces all the jobs.

At first, all is well, but soon culture conflicts spring up between Chinese managers and their American work force. Chinese managers complain about the employees' poor work ethic, their lack of productiveness, their insistence on having weekends off instead of laboring 24/7/365 like their Chinese counterparts, and their unwillingness to work overtime. The workers for their part have jobs with poor benefits and near-poverty level wages, and many criticize an extremely lax attitude towards workplace safety by Fuyao management. Matters come to a head when the United Auto Workers attempts to organize the Fuyao work force, and management mounts a scorched earth campaign to stop the union.

First film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama as part of their Netflix deal.


  • American Title: The ironic version of this trope, as the story, after all, is about a factory that is run by the Chinese.
  • Being Personal Isn't Professional: One of the gripes that management has with the American employees is that their productivity is lower than the Chinese workers', as they tend to chat more on the job rather than silently working.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: One member of management discusses his strategy of befriending workers to figure out if they're pro-union, lulling them into a false sense of security while working behind the scenes to get them fired.
  • China Takes Over the World: The main thrust of the film is that Chinese working standards get results, but at a high cost to the quality of life of laborers. As Chinese businesses spread across the globe, Americans laborers will be increasingly faced with a difficult choice between joblessness and wage slavery.
  • Contrast Montage: The film ends with contrasting shots of the American and Chinese workforces leaving their shops in Ohio and China. Notably, most of the Chinese employees are dressed in matching dark blue coveralls, while the Americans wear more varied dress.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Played with. Dewang initially attempts to be accommodating and has self-aware moments discussing his worries of ruining the environment he loves, but has early signs of being a Control Freak and later openly promotes a scorched earth campaign against workers who are attempting to unionize. Some of the other members of management (both American and Chinese) show shades of this, such as complaining that the American workers are "lazy" for working eight-hour shifts and having more than a couple days off during the month, wishing they could tape workers' mouths shut so they won't talk on the job, and coolly discussing targeting and firing pro-union employees (which is illegal).
  • Culture Clash: A central theme of the film is the culture clash between Chinese management style and American labor culture:
    • American managers are intimidated by the robotic work ethic of Chinese workers, but when they try to institute similar management policies in America, the workers are resistant and unenthusiastic.
    • Chinese managers try to raise morale by piping in Chinese working songs featuring smiling Chinese children singing in Mandarin. In lieu of health care, better wages, and safer working conditions, management creates a contest offering a free trip to China as a reward. They seem completely oblivious to the fact that the American workers have no interest in Chinese culture.
  • Documentary: Of the re-opening of a former GM plant under Chinese management, and the growing pains and difficulties that follow. Uses the fly-on-the-wall approach, so no narrator and no Ken Burns Effect.
  • Downer Beginning: Opens with the closure of the GM plant in 2008, before jumping forward to 2015 and the re-opening under Fuyao.
  • Downer Ending: The union drive fails, and while the plant becomes profitable, the workers don't see any of the profit. The wages at Fuyao continue to be half of what they were at GM, and as automation increases, most of the workers end up being replaced by machines, with management coldly detailing how they'll be cutting more and more of the workforce. The end cards predict that a staggering number of workers around the globe will be automated out of jobs by 2030.
  • Family Versus Career: Many of the Fuyao workers in China only see their family a few times a year.
  • Foreshadowing: In an early scene where Fuyao is hiring people, one man asks "Is this a union shop?", and the American fellow recruiting for Fuyao says no. Much of the latter half of the film involves Fuyao fighting like hell to stop a unionization drive.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Deconstructed, showing the perils of what happens when a push to unionize fails. One worker is fired for taking "too long" to pull something up on a computer, but surmises that he was actually targeted for being pro-union. It's illegal to fire or otherwise target a worker for attempting to unionize, but it's difficult to prove in court. The Chinese management, unaware, talk openly about targeting these employees for their attempts, but since their dialogue wasn't translated until months later, the filmmakers had no idea.
  • Jump Cut: Several jump cuts are used in a scene where an American manager named Dave, who was against the unionization effort, admits that maybe he was wrong and the plant needs a union after all.
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: The Mendelssohn "wedding march" recessional is played as the recessional after a group wedding of Chinese Fuyao employees at a company party, a scene that demonstrates how much every aspect of the lives of the Chinese Fuyao workforce is wrapped up in the company.
  • Sequel: Directors Bognar and Reichert had previously made a documentary short, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, about the closure of this very factory in 2008. That's where the scenes in the Distant Prologue come from. When the plant re-opened as a Fuyao glass factory, Bognar and Reichert came back.
  • Shout-Out: As a guy holding a UAW sign is ejected from the factory floor, he says "Sometimes, you gotta be Sally Field." This is a reference to 1970s film Norma Rae, in which Field's character leads a drive to unionize a factory.
  • Stock Footage: Footage from The Last Truck is recycled for the opening sequences of this film.
  • Tactful Translation: Chairman Cao, CEO of Fuyao Glass, leaves no doubt about how he wants to crush the union effort. He says in Mandarin, "If we are able to improve our management capabilities, it will help quell the union rebellion." His interpreter, speaking to the American plant managers, notably softens this, saying "If we are able to improve our management capabilities, it will help with our campaign against union organization."
  • Talking Heads: Largely averted, as most of the interview segments are played as voiceover. But there are a few talking heads, like when a worker named Bobby talks on-camera about how he's been repeatedly injured at Fuyao after never suffering a workplace injury over decades working for GM.
  • The Voice: A worker made a surreptitious recording of an anti-union consultant who was brought in to discourage the workers from organizing. It plays out as audio against a black screen.