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‘There is no magic wand to bring back jobs,” said US president Barack Obama in 2016. Now he has returned to this sombre realist theme with the first documentary feature in his post-presidential career as a film producer (with Michelle Obama) for Netflix, under the banner of their company Higher Ground Productions. It’s a workplace study from directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert that is absorbing, discomfiting and desperately sad. American Factory is incidentally another example of how “American” as the first word of a title supercharges the movie with irony (American Hustle, American Gangster, American Psycho). The factory in question is far from American.
In 2014, the Chinese auto glass manufacturer Fuyao bought a former General Motors car plant in Dayton, Ohio, that had been closed since 2008 – promising investment and hundreds of new jobs. Fuyao and its chairman Cao Dewang (referred to as “Chairman Cao”) were rewarded with euphoric praise – in a state that had been crushed by unemployment – and more than $6m in subsidies from Ohio state taxpayers.
The film shows how this good mood curdled as the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions. The management’s main concern was to crush any hint of a union. There is a major diplomatic incident at the opening ceremony when the Democratic Ohio state senator Sherrod Brown refers to the desirability of unions in his speech, to the displeasure of the Chinese management.
The publicity for American Factory has suggested that this is a tragicomic story of a culture clash. Maybe. We are perpetually presented with the spectacle of the slight, deferential and uniformly clad Chinese workers, snapping to attention and occasionally singing the mournfully determined company song in contrast to the big, sloppy and resentful Americans whose bodies are too big for the hi-vis tabards that they are required to wear on their educational visit to the Fuyao factory in China. Perhaps it is not really a US-versus-China story but the age-old story of capital versus labour, supercharged with a new managerial determination to sweat every last cent from this unreliable human worker before he or she is replaced with a machine.
There are toe-curling culture clash moments. It is excruciating when a motto is put up in the factory office: “Marching Forward To Be World Leading Glass Provider” – and none of the Americans can bring themselves to point out to their Chinese overlords that the word “the” is missing. When they go on their instructional trip to China and witness the militaristic shop floor discipline, there are cutaways to their aghast faces, making them look like Karren Brady on The Apprentice when she sees contestants doing something very wrong. It is in China that we learn that unions there are not loathed, because they are an arm of the communist state, and the thought of them objecting to or impeding the management of a state-sanctioned company is unthinkable. American unions are of course a very different matter, and Fuyao is shown to ruthlessly intimidate trade unionists. The Chinese are also shown having policy meetings about how to deal with their exotic US workforce and a manager is shown calmly saying that it is their responsibility to give the Americans guidance “because we are better than them”.
This movie is released at a fraught moment in US politics. The country is on the verge of a full-scale trade war with China, and Donald Trump is being praised by the right for making deals and creating jobs in defiance of that Obama statement. But these are the deals and jobs that we are talking about. American workers will be smiled on if they work cheap – that is, after all, why Chinese goods and workers were beloved by America for so long. This could be nothing more than a bridgehead for a new invasion of machines: simply the prelude to a new era of automation in which the idea of a culture clash will be less meaningful. Some of the workers here are affectionate about their Chinese opposite numbers, but this is a sobering documentary in a minor key.
• American Factory is released on Netflix on 21 August.
Source: The Guardian
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