One of the many people interviewed in Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) is Popeye, a toolmaker, who after one of his last days of work at the Moraine Assembly factory in Dayton, Ohio, is asked how he feels about the whole damned situation. “To be downright honest with you, I really don’t know what I think,” he tells the filmmakers. “It’s just like a blender, something will pop to the top, then it’ll disappear, and something else will pop to the top, and then…” He trails off, before starting again. “It’s probably fairy-land stuff, but deep in my heart, I think we’re going to get another product.” Six or seven years later, that prophecy would come to pass: The Fuyao Glass America corporation, under the leadership of its chairman, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, decided to purchase Moraine Assembly and reopen it for its own purposes. When the news first broke in 2014, it signified what then seemed to be the way of the American future, a wave of ongoing investments in US-based manufacturing and production made by mega-sized corporations based in China. And surely on some level sensing that apparent sea change, Bognar and Reichert thus returned to Dayton to make their second movie about the same building, American Factory (2019), a nonfiction film that like Closing of a GM Plant before it captures the spirit of American labor culture during a period of great decline—in this case the one that we currently find ourselves living through.
When one considers the sad circumstances that precipitated the closing of the GM plant in the first place, as well as the oft-held opinion that Bognar and Reichert are to some extent “activist filmmakers,” plus the additional fact that American Factory is the first movie to be released under the Higher Ground film imprint recently founded by Barack and Michelle Obama, then one might produce a mental image of what this movie will play like: maybe somber, perhaps self-important, and probably overloaded with “calls to action.” Yet this description is not at all true of the film that Bognar and Reichert have actually made—which very rarely calls to action, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but instead places a huge emphasis on the humor that emerges from the culture clash of this atypical socioeconomic intersection. American Factory, at least for the first half of its 110-minute runtime, even fits into one of the rarest of all cinematic subgenres, the nonfiction comedy, filled as it is with cutting insults and cruelly mocking observations that are edited down to play like punchlines. If a hypothetical viewer entered around the halfway point, they might plausibly mistake it for the latest by Armando Ianucci—a presumption that would only get backed up by the film’s elevator-jazz score, which sounds like it was ripped directly from an episode of Veep (2012-2019), if not from an even lesser network sitcom or something else like it.
American Factory establishes its approach to narrative and rhythm during its opening half, which depicts the reopening of the plant under the Fuyao banner: We see “observed” scenes of managers and executives, most of whom are Chinese, discussing the operations of the plant and the many challenges it faces (most pointedly whether or not the workers will unionize), then we often cut to brief comments given directly to camera testimonial-style by workers and laborers, most of them American, who use their time to contextualize or simply call bullshit on a lot of what the higher-ups have to say (the editing, on that note, is by Lindsay Utz). And while the music doesn’t exactly work, the comedy of the film certainly does, not only because it’s funny—which it is—but also because it’s deeply tied into the movie’s larger themes and dynamics, which revolve around the differing expectations held by U.S. and Chinese workers regarding labor and safety expectations, attitudes towards activism, and even their own physical bodies (one particularly cutting moment has a Chinese supervisor complaining that the fat fingers of a typical American makes them horribly unsuited for factory work, much to his comical annoyance).
There’s obviously something of a slobs-vs.-snobs thing going on here, with the American workers often depicted as vaguely stereotypical rednecks, and the Chinese workers often depicted as being almost comically dedicated to their work. And it’s probably fair to suspect the editing choices were selective in crafting that depiction. Yet the humor comes not so much from that combative upstairs/downstairs relationship between the laborers and the managers (a subject that’s treated rather seriously), but instead from the cultural barriers that complicate work shared by people who are somewhere around the same place on the corporate ladder. Like when one American worker is trying to explain how to spell “Wheaties” to one of his colleagues—“W-E-D-S?” the man trying to learn English asks, before the American corrects him, “No, W-E-E-T-E-S.” Especially notable along these lines is a scene depicting a meeting where a Chinese speaker instructs Chinese laborers on how they will best acclimate to American work culture, and what they need to know in order to avoid conflict. He explains quite matter-of-factly that most Americans are flattered by their parents excessively in their childhood, and thus don’t take criticism well, a note that earns a laugh from most at the meeting itself, to say nothing of film audiences. In, say, a hypothetical film by Frederick Wiseman, the scene depicting that meeting would last five or 10 minutes, with that punchline buried in the middle. But in American Factory, and in Bognar and Reichert’s version of that scene, we’re constantly just cutting to the funny stuff, then right out afterwards.
While the multilingual cross-ups produce their fair share of good material, the best and most telling juxtapositions are created in the executive suite. For example there’s one great series of mini-scenes where the movie first depicts a specifically Chinese form of corporate nonsense—Dewang ordering that no precautions be taken for rain while planning for an outdoor event, because his good luck is enough—before following it shortly thereafter with a specifically American form of corporate nonsense—a high-level employee saying to workers during a conference that the Fuyao investment represents “one of the greatest projects in the history of the United States”, before following it right afterwards with a hilariously unconvincing “but most importantly, have fun.” There’s a mercenary, perhaps even inhumane quality to the way the film is chopped down to all these goofy jabs and misunderstandings—perhaps to its credit.
On that note, there’s a telling digression that occurs when some of the American middle managers visit China. One white man among them becomes visibly overcome with emotion, and begins trying to articulate some philosophy of human unity, repeating, “We’re all one.” It’s a scene that might be moving if we knew the man better, maybe, but like most people in this film other than Dewang he’s on screen for a few minutes at most, so his revelation rings quite hollow, perhaps deliberately. The last we see of this exchange is him trying to express his idea to a woman who appears to live in China, who mishears him in a manner that is, once again, entirely in line with the larger cultural differences being explored by the larger film: When he says, “We are one,” she nods, agreeing in theory, but then says, “Yes—one company.”
As it passes by its own halfway point, the film depicts the beginnings of a union drive led mostly by American workers, and in the process essentially pivots towards a full-throated call in favor of their efforts (one of the few times we see text on screen is so the film can explicitly point out just how much US-based corporations spend on anti-union efforts). And indeed many of the film’s aesthetic choices begin to shift discernibly towards defending that side of the dynamic—the pro-labor anti-management sides—which, it should be noted, puts American Factory right in line with other works directed by Reichert, a veteran filmmaker who is having something of a career year. To wit, a few months after the premiere of American Factory at Sundance—which led to the Netflix pickup, which led to the Obama endorsement—the director was the subject of a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, entitled Julia Reichert: 50 Years in Film. And the Camden International Film Festival, where American Factory is playing (9.13, 6pm), will host Bognar and Reichert for a discussion which investigates and celebrates body of work, entitled “Story & Community” (9.14, 1:30pm), just one of many retrospective event held in the filmmaker’s honor during the past nine months. Even just the subjects and titles of Reichert’s many films (most of which are heavily interview-based, like The Last Truck, more than “narrative,” like American Factory) make clear her ongoing dedication to labor concerns and worker solidarity. Three films to her credit (some of which she made with other co-directors), for instance, are Union Maids (1976), Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists (1983), and 9to5: The Story of a Movement, which screened at MoMA as a work in progress and is said to depict “a group of women office workers in Boston [who] decided that they had suffered in silence long enough and created an organization to force changes in their workplaces”.
At some points American Factory plays as pro-labor agitprop, at others as globalization-comedy. Yet in that wide range the movie captures something relatively comprehensive, a state of the American workplace during the last years of the pre-Trump era, with doom and gloom abounding, the influence of other nations both prized and feared, and mechanical arms sitting in the background the whole time, as they literally do in this film, suggesting the next sea change to come. Despite its structural imbalances, and perhaps even as a result of them, American Factory emerges quite vast.
AMERICAN FACTORY. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX. ALSO PLAYING AS PART OF THE CAMDEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.