By Bradley Lane
Frequently overlooked, but infinitely entertaining and insightful, the documentary has increasingly become a staple of modern mainstream cinema. 2019 was host to multiple breakout documentaries including Netflix and Hulu’s competing documentaries about the failed Fyre Festival; Fyre and Fyre Fraud respectively, as well as the stunning Apollo 11 constructed entirely from archival footage and void of any voice-over narration. However, at the 92nd Academy Awards last Sunday, American Factory directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert took home the prize for best documentary feature film.
Bognar and Reichert’s story centers around the closing of a General Motors plant in their own working-class town in Ohio and the reopening of that plant thanks to a Chinese billionaire investor. The melding of American and Chinese work culture is approached with optimism and opportunity in the factory’s early days. However, that optimism quickly melts away as the ultra disciplined high-tech Chinese work culture clashes with blue-collar America.
The tension in much of the film is a result of two entirely different work cultures attempting to mesh to create a sustainable work environment. However, the directors’ choice to focus the film on the stories of the working-class employees at the plant lends the film an incredibly humanistic quality. The depiction of life in Chinese factories, as well as the plant the film focuses on, is one of dehumanization by their employer, lack of respect to working-class people and most importantly heavy restrictions on the right of workers to organize. It is a bleak depiction, but it’s a story essential to so many people who rarely have their voices heard on a platform as large of this scale.
American Factory offers a fly-on-the-wall style of storytelling; it’s a hands-off approach that rarely ever editorializes its subject matter. The directors show incredible restraint in the way their story is presented in this way. The film’s tone almost exactly mirrors the shifts in workplace tone at the multicultural factory, because it gives the workers such a clear and pronounced voice in the film. It never leads the audience to conclusions, rather, it objectively presents events as they unfold and that frank depiction leads to inescapable answers to the questions the film posits.
Bognar and Reichert’s story of a quickly transforming Ohioan town is privy to the bottom line of the Chinese international corporation but recognizes the humanity and the real power of the people who operate it at its most basic level. It is that revelation that makes the audience sympathetic to the struggles of both the American and Chinese laborers. -4/5 stars