American Factory Review: The Obamas’ Netflix Documentary Explores a Possible Threat to the “American Dream”

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American Factory Review: The Obamas’ Netflix Documentary Explores a Possible Threat to the “American Dream”

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“Fuyao needs to be an American company,” the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang announces in the initial few minutes of Julia Reichart and Steven Bognar’s American Factory, now streaming on Netflix. It’s 2016 and the beguiling Chairman Cao – as he is referred to in the documentary – is in Dayton, Ohio to inaugurate the American division of Fuyao, his global automotive-glass manufacturing company. There’s also a bit of a backstory: Fuyao’s expansion led to the reopening of a factory that used to house a General Motors plant, which closed down in 2008 (the subject of Reichart and Steven’s Oscar-nominated 40-minute short film, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant). Over 1,000 locals lost their jobs back then. Eight years later, the new plant restores balance by hiring 1000 employees with a possibility to hire more. Dayton takes to Fuyao like a fish does to water. 

Co-produced by the Obamas, American Factory opens in December 2008 with that last truck being rolled out of the assembly line at the General Motors Plant. The action then moves eight years into the future. The Fuyao factory is now a melting pot of two cultures: It sees a mix of American and Chinese workers, the latter uprooted from their families and sent to America, tasked with teaching the former the ropes. Factory workers, we are informed, work in three shifts, get two unpaid 15-minute breaks, and a 30-minute paid lunch break and every American worker is paired with a Chinese supervisor. The idea is to capitalise on the strengths of both the cultures to present a unified and productive workforce; a cohesive whole. And initially both sides seem enthused about going out of their way to equally understand each other. 

Yet, with an American President and Vice-President at charge, Chairman Cao makes his intentions of making Fuyao an American company clear, long before he actually says the words. On his first visit to the plant, he lets them take charge: His speech to the workers (with a Fuyao attorney next to him), is brief and straightforward while the president’s address deals in hyperbole. In the beginning, the Chinese workers attend a session designed to teach them how to work with Americans; to adapt. In a brief scene that instantly elicits chuckles, the Chinese employee taking the session says, “America is a country where you can let your personality roam free” before proceeding to acquaint the room with the American code of casualness. The camera focuses on the response: a vapid disinterest on the faces of the Chinese workers. Toward the end of the documentary, there’s a similar session that the Chinese employees are a part of but by then, the tide has changed. In the meet, they brainstorm ways to make America work. By then, Cao wants Fuyao be anything but an American company.

American Factory expertly mines the inherent discord in the American work ethic as compared to that of the Chinese with close-up shots and bytes from workers from both sides.

The differences start off small. At first, it’s some decor inconveniences – for instance Cao demands that the garage door be reinstalled to face another direction. But soon, the incompatibility of the union is revealed: The American workers teeter on the edge of unionising, a future that angers Chairman Cao who makes a claim to shut down the factory if there is a union. In return, they are accused of being slow workers with “fat fingers”, eventually punished for not being robotic at work. American Factory expertly mines the inherent discord in the American work ethic as compared to that of the Chinese with close-up shots and bytes from workers from both sides. While the American division works eight hours, weekends off, and rallies against unsafe working conditions, the Chinese division works over 12 hours, gets one day off in a month, and are almost clock-like in their precision, setting new standards for efficiency and risking their lives to achieve that. 

Even between themselves, the workers at the Fuyao plant struggle to find common ground, leading to “everyone being upset in their own language”. The quality of glass they make shows no sign of improvement either: An audit backfires when a glass shatters into pieces. The factory is soon suffering losses and Chairman Cao chalks the inefficiency down to being foremost, a shoddy management problem. A quick trip to the China plant is arranged to allow the American managers to imbibe the tricks of the trade from their Chinese counterparts and even though they incorporate some of their learnings at the Dayton factory, very little really improves. In a last ditch attempt, Fuyao appoints a new Chinese President, enables the Chinese supervisors to exert more power over their American colleagues, and intimidate anyone who is pro-unionising. An employee provides an apt summary of the situation, “The Chinese wants numbers. Quality wants customer satisfaction. And we’re stuck in the middle.” 

American Factory gains from its decision to rely on the workers to voice the complexities of labour rights. It introduces us to a bunch of compelling faces – both Chinese and American – who articulate their personal stakes: One of them is the glass inspector, who was paid 24 dollars every hour at General Motors but now works for only 12 dollars per hour. Another woman has been forced to live in her sister’s basement after 2008. For them, Fuyao, however imperfect might be the only answer. For the factory’s Chinese furnace engineer, whose hands boast of burns from 20 years on the job, it’s like getting punished for no reason: He frequently talks about missing his wife and kids. There are other issues as well – workplace injuries, tense employee relations, and an aggressive attempt on the part of Cao, to do away with the threat of a union. In the end, the Fuyao factory devolves into an exercise on power and control. Cao remains unwilling to part with either of it, guaranteeing that the Chinese workers retain their dominance over their American counterparts, promptly shattering the illusion of “Made in America”. 

Throughout, American Factory offers a defining snapshot of the times, asking one important question: Can the American dream still exist in a world where its labour rarely has an upper hand?