Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 115 minutes; in English and Chinese with subtitles. Next screenings: Friday, Feb. 1, 12:15 p.m., The Ray Theatre, Park City.
The documentary “American Factory” — a fascinating as-it-happens look at a cross-cultural clash in the industrialized world — shows what happens when filmmakers are patient, mindful of details, and willing to let a story play out in directions one would never expect.
Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert follow a story in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, as the abandoned GM assembly line in Moraine (which Bognar and Reichert chronicled in their Oscar-nominated short doc “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant”) was reopened by a Chinese company, Fuyao, one of the world’s leading makers of auto glass.
At first, everyone is all smiles, because these plucky Ohioans are so desperate for jobs that they’ll happily sign up for this Chinese interloper. Fuyao’s founder and CEO, known to all as Chairman Cao, has invested $1 billion, and is determined to bridge the divide between American and Chinese business practices. And to show how committed he is, he hires Americans as his executives, and insists that U.S. workers run the different phases of operation, with Fuyao workers brought over from China to assist them.
Soon, though, the cracks in the happy facade start to open wider. Two main issues stick out: That the Chinese workers have no concept of the 40-hour work week, and the fear that the American Fuyao workers might unionize — after Cao threatened to close the factory if they did.
Bognar and Reichert stay as unobtrusive as possible, scoring deep insights not available when reporters follow the corporate message. In some of the footage, there are Fuyao staff meetings where only Chinese employees gather — and the naked discussions that belittle the Ohio workers and spread misinformation about the union organizers.
Elegantly shot and loaded with fascinating characters on both sides, “American Factory” smartly doesn’t take sides, allowing the story to introduce the workers, the company leadership, and union organizers to explain themselves, and let the viewers make up their minds who’s right.