'American Factory': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Complex ideas about the American Dream are introduced, but don't always come together.

A Chinese company opens a factory in Ohio with culture-clashing results in Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's documentary.

One of the more resilient American cinematic genres of the '80s and early '90s offered different tonal responses to the fear that the Japanese were just days away from taking over the United States. The genre could be played for pure humor (Gung Ho) or in the guise of a techno-thriller (Rising Sun) and could encompass degrees of racism ranging from "A Lot" to "Oh Dear God."

Take the basic conceit of Gung Ho, swap in the Chinese for the Japanese and a dry-but-sincere plea for organized labor in the place of wacky comedy and you'd get something that resembles Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's Sundance documentary American Factory. The film is too earnest and well-intentioned to fall prey to racism, but there's a vein of xenophobia baked into its premise that lingers and leaves more of a bad taste than it should. It's a two-sided xenophobia that doesn't get any deeper than "Well, both sides came into this with some bad faith." Is that the filmmakers not digging enough or the cautionary tale itself?

The documentary begins in 2008 with the closing of a key General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. Several years later, a Chinese billionaire reopens the facility as Fuyao Glass America, with the promise of giving work to 2,000-plus Dayton residents. It's a strange project meant to change American perceptions of the Chinese by bringing hundreds of Chinese workers to Ohio, interspersing them with less-experienced American workers in unearned leadership positions, with nobody capable of bridging the linguistic gap between the labor force and nobody interested in bridging the cultural gap.

In lieu of any sort of wholesale attempt at understanding, the Chinese workers attend seminars that teach them about stereotypical aspects of American personalities, like our collective boundless and unearned self-confidence, while a hand-picked group of Americans visit Fuyao's Chinese plant and marvel over propagandistic musical performances and come away with the confusing conclusion that we may be different, but we're all one world.

Global solidarity is in no way a message that American Factory wishes to impart. "Solidarity Forever" is, however, a tangible theme, because there but for the grace of labor unions, the Chinese might be able to take over American industry, and a Chinese takeover of America would mean, among other things: a lack of holidays and weekends, a lack of respect for workplace or environmental regulations, and a lunchroom filled with TVs playing promotional videos dominated by preternaturally cheery children. The underlying message through the entire documentary is that the American Dream failed in Dayton when GM left — Bognar and Reichert chronicled that closure in the Oscar-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant — and the false hope offered by Fuyao might be in some ways worse. Unions, then, are what is left.

The thing preventing the Chinese from being the villains of American Factory is that several of the Chinese "characters" are the documentary's most complex. Cao Dewang, founder of Fuyao, has a fascinating mixture of supercilious contempt for the American marketplace he's effectively looking to conquer and a deep and sad nostalgia for a pre-industrialized China that he helped usher into history. He's both successful and a relic. The future may be cigarette-loving Wong, the only Chinese figure in the documentary who seems willing to adapt to his new homeland on its own terms.

As for the Americans, there are simply too many for Bognar and Reichert to give any of them real identities. Even introducing and reintroducing different factory workers and their different jobs, they still all become blurs. Or maybe that's the point? That as individuals they lack clout that only comes to the collective? I'm not that generous. The documentary has five credited cinematographers and is attempting to follow a wide variety of workers in a variety of positions. That nobody becomes a realized character with an emotional arc is just a place American Factory falls a little flat.

It's mostly in the union campaign that American Factory finds its tonal confidence. There are indications in Chad Cannon's score that the early culture clash is maybe supposed to be funny? It doesn't play that way. The union campaign actually ends up being both more dramatic and amusing because it brings out the long-dormant fight in the community, even among former executives who begin the documentary staunchly opposed to letting Fuyao become a union shop. Then just as it's settling into a rhythm, American Factory becomes a different, more chilling, forward-looking story/warning in its last 10 minutes.

Maybe the future of working-class America really is an intriguing, never-completely-satisfying mixture of fish-out-of-water comedy, cultural misunderstanding and progressive battle cry? Or maybe that's just how American Factory came together, or tried to come together.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production company: Participant Media
Directors: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert
Producers: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert, Jeff Reichert, Julie Parker Benello
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann
Editor: Lindsay Utz
Cinematography: Steven Bognar, Aubrey Keith, Jeff Reichert, Julia Reichert, Erick Stoll
Music: Chad Cannon

Running Time: 115 minutes