“American Factory,” Netflix documentary by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, 110 minutes
General Motors leaves a lot of Dayton, Ohio, workers adrift when they shut down a big factory. In 2014, a Chinese company buys it and starts hiring. They bring in a number of their veteran workers to show the Americans how to manufacture automobile glass the Chinese way. The film makers follow the workers, both Chinese and American, and managers, both Chinese and American, around the workplace and during visits to China, and let them have their say.
The film was recommended by the AFL-CIO, but that doesn’t mean it’s a propaganda vehicle for our side. In an extra attachment, the two documentarians explain their lack of bias to Barack and Michelle Obama.
Even without editorializing from the film makers, there are some really hard-hitting scenes in the movie. One of the Americans explains how happy he is to get the new job, how affectionate he feels toward his new Chinese co-workers as he settles in, and then, later, how lost and miserable he is when he gets fired for causing a 3-second delay.
The Chinese and American workers try to figure each other out. The Autoworkers union tries to regain the membership they lost from General Motors (the organizing drive could have easily made a good separate movie). The American managers try to cope with the hard demands of the Chinese owners. Some quit, some get fired, and some get laid off as the factory becomes more and more efficient. At least one of the American managers is bitter about being dumped. Another one, speaking Mandarin and probably thinking it won’t get translated, shows himself to be far nastier toward the American workers than the Chinese ever tried to be.
In a trip to a Chinese factory, the American managers try to adjust to an entirely different culture and mentality. The always-neutral film makers just record it all without comment.
The Chinese workers were on 12-hour shifts and some of them were only able to see their families for a few days out of every year. They were amazingly efficient and fanatically hard-working. Nobody commented on it, but all of them were also quite young.