A few moments into American Factory, a Chinese couple marvels at the modest, ordered homes of Dayton, Ohio from a hilltop. The city is about to become the location of a branch of Chinese company Fuyao Glass, whose new factory will operate out of a closed GM plant.
The scene is short, but their brief conversation touches on three of the film’s primary themes: America, promise, and divergence. The camera is positioned just behind them, as if we are secret bystanders to their offhand musings. The moment cements our place as witnesses to the many cultural developments, crossovers, and challenges that the film seeks to reveal.
The 2019 Oscar-winning American documentary, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, and produced by the Obamas, follows the experience of American and Chinese workers as the new Fuyao factory reinvigorates job opportunities for Americans, while simultaneously introducing Chinese management and cultural standards. It confronts the collaboration, tension, and resentment that arise from both groups of people dealing with circumstances and expectations to which they are not accustomed, and do not necessarily understand.
With the credits rolling, I couldn’t help but return to the title, American Factory, and the ways the two words are depicted in the film. Both seem to carry multiple malleable definitions, seemingly defined not by the documentary but by its subjects and the intimacy of the workplace. Political undertones are allowed to simmer, but never come to a full boil. The film, with all of its subtleties and refusal to take a side, comes across as irresponsible for how the idea of the ‘American Factory’ is brought to life. It leads us, instead, to consider that ‘progress’ inherently entails a measure of redefinition.
‘American’ takes on multiple dimensions, the first being how the American workers themselves view their work. They emphasize the need for favorable conditions, fair wages, time off, and some sort of encouragement or appreciation for the work they are doing. In response, we experience how the Chinese workers come to understand these quintessentially ‘American’ traits – the American workers are viewed as inefficient, undeserving of higher salaries, slow and lazy, and unmotivated. In one sense, we are given a small window into how America and China, respectively, feel about working with and competing against each other.
Without ever providing a definitive stance on or critique of this highly symbolic interaction, the documentary pushes us towards forming our own questions about identity in the context of the workers’ environment. Is it possible for either cultural perspective to be intrinsically superior to the other? Is the power of observation enough to draw substantial conclusions about another culture? The film provokes viewers to think in this big picture way, perhaps humbly acknowledging that no film, no matter how factual, could ever really answer what it means to be culturally aware – or what it means to be American.
‘Factory’, too, faces its own dilemma of meaning. The factory has long been a symbol of progress and, more generally, a marker of a historical American era of pride and prosperity. In this case, the factory’s role is assessed through a new dimension of progress: that of cultural progress. According to the film, heavy industry can no longer reflect progress on its own – it becomes clear, instead, that a sense of community and efforts towards understanding are needed in order to sustain it. The story of the factory, told in this way, is about its workers – both American and Chinese. In fact, the film’s subjects are workers just as much as they are people. The terms become interchangeable, implying that a large part of finding common ground as humans, and, hopefully shared success, is being able to work together (literally).
The ‘clash of cultures’ is a term we hear all the time, but is usually explored through politics, religion, society – what we view as the intangible ‘bigger picture’. Yet the film confronts it from the institutionalized perspective of the workplace. When the factory life of America’s biggest competitor is imported and installed on American soil, can there be any sort of reckoning or compromise between two cultures that have such contrasting philosophical and political principles – all in the name of labor? This is, perhaps, the biggest question the documentary leaves open for the viewer to ponder.
For a film that offers up a true story in a relatively mundane, unassuming fashion, extensive pressure is placed upon the viewer to consider questions of culture, identity, and power, without any clear view of an answer. The film calls into question the authenticity of its own title – is an American Factory even a viable concept anymore? What is clear, however, is that the film’s purpose lies not in taking a particular stance on what the clash of cultures means for our future, but in exploring the constant redefinitions that this country, and the world at large, is facing in an era of self-conscious globalization.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the following past FOLCS events:
Hate Speech v. Free Speech, featuring NYU Law Professor, Nadine Strossen, New York Times columnist, Bret Stephens, and First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams.