It’s impossible to walk away from American Factory without feeling some type of emotion, whether it’s sympathy for a work force that was robbed of its livelihood only to be given the illusion of fresh, if limited opportunities, or disbelief at how anybody could believe that a Chinese company would somehow adapt to U.S. worker protections—efforts that are often an illusion or downright lie.
For me, having come from a pro-union, blue-collar family that had a positive experience with the American labor market in the mid/late 20th century, my first viewing left me a tad angry at the outcome and the workers’ shortsightedness when deciding
upon whether to throw their support behind a union.
Note that, as a review of a fly-on-the-wall documentary that covers an important chapter in the lives of rust-belt Americans, my comments may contain a spoiler or two, but nothing that wasn’t covered in the news during and after the Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co. Ltd of the People’s Republic of China bought and renovated a shuttered General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. As the company’s Fuyaousa.com website explains: “General Motors, Ford, BMW, Honda, Bentley and more all use Fuyao glass in their newly manufactured automobiles.”
All true, and when the company first started the process of buying and renovating the plant and hiring approximately 2,000 staff for a facility that had been shuttered for six years, local residents were ecstatic over a chance to return the region to its glory as a haven for U.S.-based manufacturing.
Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were given near-unbelievable access to film the scenario as it unfolded, from the earliest days of site inspections to staffing,
training, and the inevitable and, at least in the beginning, almost humorous culture clashes that one would expect when blue-collar middle Americans are brought into a corporate culture that is known for formality and respect for authority. According to an article that appeared in the Dayton Daily News last August, Bognar said he and Reichert, “stand by the translations subtitled in the work.”
An important note, since it isn’t long before the almost idyllic melding of the cultures gives way to real-life concerns about skimping on safety standards, and the company’s firm stance against unionization. The directors, who also shot the 2009 Academy Award-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, illustrate throughout the film their talent for letting
the events happen without editorialization, giving it a narrative approach that tells the story as well as any well-made piece of fiction.
But this is real life, with both American and Chinese staff providing relatively few off-camera commentaries as the story is allowed to simply play out on screen, with the help of small, handheld
cameras and lavalier microphones that follow one and all for months and years as the dream of a resuscitated manufacturing environment slowly unravels. The guerilla-style shoot foregoes polemics, leaving the viewer to decide where they stand on a matter that affected thousands of people in the recent past.
The Oscar-nominated American Factory is as good a documentary as I’ve seen in recent years, thanks in no small part to the high production values, including a surround mix that is unspectacular in the best possible way. Subtle effects such as factory noises, the crunching of gravel, and kids playing in a backyard remain in the rear, quietly supporting the voices and underlying tension on the screen. Maybe it’s a Netflix thing, but knowing that it would mostly be seen on a small screen supported by soundbars or other low-tech solutions most likely led the filmmakers to go light on the audio mix, though anybody with a 5.1 system will feel as if they are on the factory floor and in the boardrooms.
Likewise, video is impeccable, without the excessive grain often associated with this type of documentary. No doubt those anomalies were cleaned up in post-production, a critical element in making this so watchable on a big screen in a small-ish living room. (Apartment dwellers in NY and other big cities know what I mean.) The visual quality ranks with the most polished documentaries of the past 10 years.
As the first release by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is remarkably unbiased, simply telling the story as it happens without nudging the viewer to fall into any specific camp. The Obamas stated that their production company is designed to “harness the power of storytelling.” Judging by this debut release, they’re poised to become an important contributor to American cinema. From its presentation to its attention to cinematic detail, Higher Ground is well on its way to meeting and ultimately exceeding its goals.
Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and owner of Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.