Netflix’s documentary American Factory, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, explores a couple key themes in its narrative, which follows individuals’ stories throughout the process of an economic shift. The most obvious is the cultural clash between American and Chinese industrial culture; the second, less obvious but more important, is the universal misunderstanding between upper- and working-class despite those cultural differences.
The documentary takes place in Dayton, Ohio, after a General Motors factory shuts down, causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Two years later, Fuyao Glass, a well-established Chinese company, buys the building and opens up business. It’s a sign of hope for the American workers, many of whom are re-hired to work alongside employees who have been transferred to Dayton from China.
The company’s branch owner, Chairman Cao, insists that Fuyao Glass America is an American factory and that the two cultures must learn to cooperate in a working environment. While an important and optimistic sentiment, Cao ironically misunderstands a large amount of American standards and also fails to live up to his own mantra. This is evident not only in the grammatically incorrect English motivational phrases he has painted on the walls of the factory, but more seriously in the disagreements he faces with American higher-ups when discussing factory safety standards, wages, as quality. As a result, many workers end up injured and underpaid, and they attempt to unionize.
As unionization efforts gain traction, Chairman Cao and Vice President Dave Burrows (an American) hold meetings on how they will prevent the union from coming to fruition in order to avoid having to create safe working conditions or paying higher wages. In the meantime, Cao begins to notice that the American workers are slower than his Chinese workers. This ultimately comes down to a cultural disagreement between the value of quality over quantity, or vice versa, as the Americans spend more time making higher-quality glass, whereas the Chinese are faster and work on pumping out more product. Because of this difference, Cao begins finding reasons to fire the American workers and replace them with Chinese workers in the name of efficiency, eventually molding the company from a Chinese-American factory to a primarily Chinese one.
At the end of the documentary, we see Cao walking through the factory with a couple of managers. There are notably fewer people in the warehouse, and a manager explains to Cao that they are reducing the number of people in order to replace them with self-operating machines. At this point, Fuyao Glass America has reached the epitome of efficiency for its time, but has lost all its humanity.
In watching American Factory, I have to admit that I could not help but feel biased toward the workers and against the higher-ups, and especially against Chairman Cao. The way in which Bognar and Reichert used parallel scenes in order to contrast both Chinese and American culture and the working- and the upper-class was incredibly effective in formatting the story, showing who cared about what and who didn’t. This is incredibly notable in the examples used of Rob and Wong, an American and a Chinese worker, becoming inseparable and learning about one another’s cultures both inside and outside of their jobs, constrasted with Cao and Dave, whose cultural disagreements extended to the point of Dave being fired.
Though Bognar and Reichert did not intend for there to be a narrative or moral to their story while they were filming (as explained in American Factory: A Conversation With the Obamas), their documentary eventually unfolded into an unintentional example of what happens when a threat to the American Dream is realized.