When my social feeds started blowing up on Oscars night that Ohio filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary American Factory about Dayton’s Fuyao Glass factory had just won an Academy Award, I was reminded of an interview I caught the end of a few days earlier where they were being interviewed about the film’s Oscar nomination. I had opened the Netflix app on my phone when I parked that day and put the film in my list but hadn’t watched it yet. I recognized their names as the same folks who had done the documentary The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant on HBO. American Factory could be considered a sequel to that film because it’s about what happened next at that same facility.
Now, I’ve always loved movies, but I’m not cultured enough to be a film critic. That being said, there were some remarkable things I noticed as I watched. Also, because I run another “American Factory” in Dayton, Ohio, and I’m old enough to remember way back when that facility was a Frigidaire plant, I thought I would probably recognize a lot of the places and find a lot to relate to in the film. True and true.
So, first of all, American Factory is VERY visually engaging. The scenes and soundtrack convey the message every bit as much as the words that are spoken. I would imagine that planning that and editing is more than half of the work making a documentary like this. But what really put it over the top for me was that, unlike The Last Truck, which was essentially focused on the experiences of the displaced workers (and was, as a result, mostly just sad). American Factory presents a significantly more “whole” and honest picture without offering guiding “commentary”. It was refreshing and deeply compelling and it made me think, which is, I imagine, the whole point.
- From inside a UAW Union Hall meeting, American employees are trying to organize in the plant. Meanwhile, right inside the conference rooms of Fuyao senior managers and even the Chairman himself discuss how the American employees were too slow because they have fat fingers and don’t want to work overtime.
- A Chinese manager explains how he had learned from “spies” he had in the plant that a certain American employee was a union sympathizer, showing the camera pictures and all, and that he would be gone within 2 weeks.
- The American plant manager literally tells Chairman Cao how he’s going to kill Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown with the giant scissors they cut the ribbon with after the senator said something about supporting union organizers at the plant’s grand opening event.
- The American supervisors are brought to China to visit the plant where they are asked to “perform” a contribution to a company celebration. They end up doing a half-assed karaoke performance of YMCA during an otherwise incredible company presentation at the Chinese plant that couldn’t have made them look more ridiculous if they had worn clown shoes and red wigs.
- Chariman Cao in prays in a Buddhist temple and questions the environmental impact of his many factories.
Over and over I found myself wondering how in the world did they get all that? I have since learned that the film was produced by Higher Ground Productions formed by Barack and Michelle Obama, so there’s some pretty heavy duty international clout right there, and that probably helped more than a little. But now that I know that, I did not find the film to be expressing a political ideology. It’s just all there in living color, and presented in a way that says, “Here you go. Here’s everything. Think about this, I mean REALLY think about it. Now, what ya gonna do with that, cowboy?”
Here’s what I’ve got so far…
- It looks like Chinese and American workers hold wildly differing views about WHY we work. It’s a world view difference and it’s intellectually lazy for each culture to stand in their comfortable “tribe” and critically point at the other.
- Each of the “tribes” know they’re supposed to rise above that kind of cultural behavior but that’s easier to say than to do. Like so many things, it’s not really as simple as we might want to believe.
- I feel like I haven’t given enough thought or learned enough about these differences to be confident about how I’m leading our company as we continue to supply customers who are multinational corporations and work directly with an increasingly diverse group of people in our everyday functions.
- There is a noticeable disparity in the amount of singing, performance, and cute children dressed in chicken suits at our company events compared to what I see in the China segments here. Also, we may need a company song.
But seriously, hats off and congratulations to Bogner and Reichert from another American Factory in Dayton!