Wednesday, November 13, 2019

American Factory

Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Producers Michelle and Barack Obama

AMERICAN FACTORY                  C+                  
USA  (115 mi)  2019  d: Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

Despite the accolades coming out of Sundance, winner of the Best Director category in the documentary competition, the first film made with the distribution backing of Higher Ground productions, a media company launched by Barack and Michelle Obama (coming onboard only after the filming was complete), as well as Participant Media, where executive producer Diane Weyermann (longtime Sundance executive) heads the film and television arm of a company dedicated to social change, and while it attempts to be objective and even handed, telling both sides of the story, this film barely scratches the surface, only touching upon the most glaring cultural differences, exposing the futile plight of the working class, who get screwed once again, while leaving largely unanswered any underlying implications about the overall success or failure of this global capitalist venture.  Even the billionaire owner is unsure if he is the hero or villain in this continuing saga playing out in open view.  “From the early footage, it was clear they had incredible access to management as well as the workers,” says Weyermann.  “But it’s not just having access that matters, it’s what a filmmaker can do with the access.  Julia and Steven are extraordinary verité filmmakers who could capture the drama and identify compelling characters as the story unfolded in real time.  We saw the potential for an incredibly strong, critically important story that needed to be told.”  Without comment or critique, but simply providing fly on the wall observation, perhaps inadvertently shining a bright light on the ethics (or lack thereof) of capitalism, the film attempts to put a human face on globalization, becoming an all too familiar story that shows in draconian fashion the dismantling (once again) of the American Dream as it eviscerates before our eyes, where one should point out that 5 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the year 2000, mostly replaced by entry level or part-time positions.  Examining the changing fortunes of a Rust Belt community in Dayton, Ohio, riddled with economic turmoil since the closing of a General Motors auto plant two days before Christmas in 2008, where 10,000 jobs were lost when the plant closed, leaving what was a thriving middle-class community economically ravaged, never recovering from the financial void.  In what was initially viewed as a godsend, hopes skied through the roof when a Chinese billionaire decided to re-open the abandoned plant to operate a large-scale glass facility called Fuyao Glass America, the world’s leading supplier of automotive glass, including GM, Ford, Honda, Toyota and many other auto manufacturers.  Already operating in 8 countries in addition to China, the opening of an American branch was highly symbolic, especially the idea of using a shuttered American plant, as starting from scratch might have been cheaper, but part of the attraction was realizing the importance of providing jobs in such an economically depressed region, believing it would significantly improve how the Chinese are viewed in America, seeing themselves as their nation’s ambassadors, wanting to be viewed in a positive light.  The film doesn’t do justice to the actual size of the facility, as it’s large enough to hold 41 football fields, still containing the old equipment that needed to be removed and cleaned up before installing their own manufacturing equipment, a massive project that by itself took a year.  When 2000 American workers were hired in 2015 (albeit at $12/hr, less than half the pay they were earning previously, similar to entry level pay at any retail store, which have significantly fewer safety hazards), people jumped at the opportunity, welcoming the owner Chairman Cao Dewang along with his Chinese trainers and advisory staff, creating an initial sense of optimism and euphoria, with smiles all around, believing this cultural exchange was in everyone’s best interest.

What’s perhaps most surprising is the access given to the filmmakers, who were paired (at their own request) with a bilingual team of young female Chinese filmmakers, Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang (the latter is credited as an additional camera and translator while the former remains uncredited), whose views are never presented, but they are an unseen cultural bridge that helped assemble this material, so should not go unmentioned.  The Chinese trainers working side-by-side with the Americans are welcomed into people’s homes and to backdoor barbeques, spending holidays together, going fishing, with some seen taking target practice with guns, which are not allowed in China, or even riding on the back of Harleys.  This cultural exchange is reminiscent of the spirit of Thanksgiving, giving thanks for the second chance many of these workers were experiencing.  But progress was slow in coming, as profits weren’t instantaneous as they are in Chinese factories, with both sides perplexed at the appearance of stagnation.  In a spirit of exchange, the American managerial staff are invited to share New Year’s festivities in China with the boss and his factory workers, which is a major production number, with workers performing skits and heavily produced musical numbers, while also demonstrating the solidarity among the ranks, where workers sing cheerful songs together, or align themselves in military formations when announcing production teams, using slogans and cliché’d expressions to heighten the spirit, all praising the company and its great achievements, where the boss is treated like a military general that the workers bow down before, honoring him with nothing but praise.  When this American staff returns to the plant, the stark contrast couldn’t be more pronounced, as workers simply aren’t going to sing the praises like their Chinese counterparts, and there are grumblings within the ranks, as the Chinese management style ignores safety precautions, putting workers at risk, especially those working around the flaming hot furnace where temperatures routinely exceed 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, while managers may be releasing toxic chemicals down the drain, where it’s unclear what effect this has on the water supply.  More importantly, Chinese workers are completely indoctrinated, used to 12-hour days, working weekends, while routinely working overtime without pay.  They view American workers as soft for stopping after 8-hours and going home, as Chinese workers only see their families about two days a month (for those coming to America it can be years), relying on others to raise their children, essentially becoming strangers to them as they are exiled at work away from home, where the essential marriage that matters is to the company.  According to Chairman Cao, “The point of living is to work,” where family is viewed as purely secondary, while the lifelong commitment to the company is reinforced daily, with managers caught on camera voicing their opinion that Chinese culture is far superior, that Americans should be treated like donkeys.  Of course, Americans view this with skepticism, as China has no history of labor laws, but anxiety within the ranks grows when it comes to safety concerns, as there’s no union, as they had as auto workers, protecting their interests.  When a few workers get seriously injured on the job, it appears that their medical needs are compensated (though done secretly), but some are fired before they have an opportunity to return, where there’s whispering within the ranks about what’s causing these accidents, and many blame shortcuts taken by the company.

One of the glaring cultural differences is the use of praise, with Chinese executives seen poking fun at “the American problem,” claiming they are overpraised as children, never really having to work hard, but a few are surprised to learn families are working two or three jobs to stay afloat, which totally contradicts the stereotype.  Americans are inclined to work according to job expectations, with monetary rewards for exceeding those expectations, but here no one is congratulated or even encouraged, instead they are blamed for each incident that goes wrong and accused of disloyalty, where the message is always to keep working harder, to emulate the Chinese model, which has proven successful in China, but is dead on arrival in America, as it resembles indentured servitude, with Chinese workers cramped into small corporate-owned dormitories nearby, working and taking meals together, rarely ever leaving, completely beholden to the company.  Early on we see a private conversation with Chairman Cao and his management team, expressing alarm at the thought of unions and how they cut into his bottom line, revealing his intent to shut down if the factory becomes unionized, believing, as many American CEO’s do, that it would contaminate his business.  It’s ironic, then, that the geographical choice for his factory is in a heavily industrial region with a history of labor activism, as opposed to the South, which generally shares similar views towards unions, with every Confederate state, with the exception of Florida, a Right to Work state.  Receiving a generous tax credit from the Ohio Tax Credit Authority, the mood at the opening ceremony is soured by unscripted comments from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown who anticipated a healthy working relationship between labor and management.  This ends up being the elephant in the room, as China’s labor unions are part of the Communist party political apparatus (Chairman Cao’s brother-in-law is the labor leader), where work and politics have the same goal, providing economic improvements in China.  Not so here, as the company clearly wants to ignore union concerns, but when the United Auto Workers make their presence felt for an upcoming vote whether or not to accept a union, the company mysteriously offers a $2/hour raise to every single employee.  Additionally, workers are sent to several mandatory meetings with a Labor Relations Institute (LRI) representative hired by the company (for a whopping $1 million dollars) to send fear into the hearts of employees if they vote to accept a union, implementing basic scare tactics, with Chinese employees wearing uniforms that state Vote No on the back, which certainly influences the outcome, voting handily to reject the union, with Chinese employees showing more glee than their managerial counterparts, where it’s more of a sigh of relief.  What’s most interesting here is the outright contempt shown to workers expressing any interest in the union, as they are quickly singled out and fired, no questions asked, where many are the same ones who earlier invited these Chinese managers into their homes.  This can’t help but breed resentment in the ranks, as any employee voice has been silenced, with the company viewed as a dictatorial authority operating with impunity, showing little interest in “communicating” with employees, expecting total compliance while uttering the nonsensical phrase “making America great again.”  The biggest cultural difference here is one nation raised in a democracy, where individuals have rights, while the other has ruled in a one-party Communist system since Mao Zedong in 1949, where citizens are required to capitulate to the established order, as they have no other alternative.  In the latter stages of the film, the first step taken is eliminating the American managers, next workers are regularly being replaced by robotic machines dutifully doing the same work without complaints, which immediately boosts the profit margins of the company.  It’s unclear how many American workers continue to work at the plant, perhaps half the initial hire, but it’s nowhere close to what the Chairman proposed in his initial pitch to the community when he promised to hire over 5,000 Americans.  In a Rust Belt swing state (Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012) that emphatically voted for Trump in 2016, winning 81 of 88 counties, mostly by promising to resurrect the forgotten working-class blue-collar workers in the Midwest by restoring millions of factory jobs (and by the way, how’s that going?), where his autocratic, anti-regulatory managerial style along with greatly exaggerated false promises identically mirrors the exploitive capitalist strategy of Chairman Cao. 

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