GLOBALISATION: High tech China clashes with working-class America in the first documentary from the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: January 22, 2020

The General Motors plant was shuttered just over a decade ago in Dayton, Ohio, amid a financial downturn and less demand for the fuel-guzzling vehicles coming off its production line. More than 10,000 locals were left without jobs. Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert documented its closure for HBO in their 2009 short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, and the precarious future faced by its soon-to-be-redundant employees. Now, the pair have returned to the scene, for the feature American Factory.

The plant was bought by Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, and the directors chart its 2014 reopening as an automobile glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass America. The film was picked up, after the fact, by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company for Netflix, and is now entering the last stages of the Oscar race as a feature-length best documentary nominee.

Those days are over

«We’ll never make that kind of money again — those days are over», says one former General Motors employee, resigned to the realities of his new climate. As the film opens, many starting at Fuyao are simply delighted to have a new prospect. Jill, a forklift operator, had been living in her sister’s basement after the bank foreclosed on her house, struggling to keep afloat since redundancy. Still, the pay discrepancy between the past factory and today’s is huge. Shawnea, a glass inspector, is on $12.84 an hour at Fuyao — less than half her rate at General Motors, and she feels the pinch sorely, no longer able to just go out and buy new gym shoes for her kids whenever they are needed.

American Factory is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall study of a new era of globalised capitalism, in which workers are increasingly seen as dispensable as their jobs are taken over by machines. The tension between the competing interests of employee rights and the pursuit of profit above all is greatly exacerbated by a clash of cultures around values as fundamental as individualism vs. dutiful submission to the collective effort. It «needs to be an American company», but «successful», we hear, raising the question of just what is negotiable in squaring these expectations. Faced with Chinese norms of factory culture, …

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