A promising business experiment in which Chinese and American laborers work side by side fails because of cultural differences and the familiar demand for productivity at the expense of humanity. That story proves both endearingly entertaining and terribly sad in the documentary “American Factory.”
Directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the film, screening at Landmark’s Shattuck in Berkeley and on Netflix, brings to mind the Indian documentary “Machines” and, with its fly-on-the-wall scenes of boardroom-style discussions, the films of Frederick Wiseman, while also possessing an engaging narrative.
A sequel of sorts to the Ohio-based filmmakers’ Oscar-nominated short “The Last Truck,” the film transpires at a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton. Resurrected by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, aka Chairman Cao, and his Fuyao Group, which manufactures automobile glass, the factory, with more than 1,000 jobs available, was welcomed by the recession-devastated local community when it reopened several years ago.
The doc begins as a culture-clash comedy. Newly arrived Chinese employees, getting briefed on what to expect, are told that Americans are slow workers with “fat fingers.” On a fishing trip, workers from the two cultures bond. Chinese employees learn words like “carp” and “Wheaties.”
The cuteness wanes when profits don’t meet goals. Bosses pressure workers to perform harder and faster. Cultural gaps widen between the Chinese workers, who are accustomed to grueling shifts, and the Americans, who, at Fuyao, earn considerably less than their old GM salaries and cite safety violations and other unacceptable workplace conditions.
Escalating frustration prompts the workers to consider unionizing. Chairman Cao, determined to quash any possibility of a union, reacts ruthlessly.
The film’s not quite a knockout. Featured American workers — forklift driver Jill, who lives in her sister’s basement due to financial hardship and furnace supervisor Rob, who considers colleague Wong a “brother” — receive more personalized attention than their Chinese counterparts.
The extent to which the troubles at the Ohio plant mirror those at factories elsewhere never becomes clear.
But the filmmakers, benefiting from impressive access, provide captivating material, especially in the arena of cultural differences.
“Can we force them to work overtime?” we hear at a meeting where supervisors discuss how to handle Americans, whom they deem slow and lazy. “We are better than them,” someone says.
In China, visiting American supervisors appear both impressed and horror-struck as Fuyao factory workers line up military style, toil with speed and precision and perform a propagandistic musical extravaganza.
The filmmakers score additional points for their humanist approach to bad guy Chairman Cao, who, at one point, nostalgically recalls the pre-modernized China of his childhood. They generate suspense in the segment featuring the tense atmosphere surrounding the unionization vote.
Without taking sides, they communicate the message that worker solidarity is not the enemy of company productivity.
It all adds up to a revealing look at labor in the globalization age and a heartfelt salute to everyday workers.
Starring: Fuyao Glass America workers
Directed by: Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes