Phrases like "globalization," "postindustrial capitalism" and "cultural dislocation" have a way of making the eyes glaze over. But at their most arcane, those ideas share a common heart: working people whose lives and livings are on the line. "American Factory," an exquisite documentary set at the contradictory core where those forces converge, tells a macroeconomic story through the micro-level experiences of indelible real-life characters.
In 2008, filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar embedded at a General Motors assembly plant in Dayton, Ohio, where they chronicled the final weeks of an employer of more than 2,400 autoworkers. The resulting short film, "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant," played like a eulogy for American enterprise and middle class aspirations, writ large and small.
Six years later, the plant reopened under the ownership of Fuyao, a Chinese company that makes automotive glass. Thanks in large part to the trust they established with "The Last Truck," Reichert and Bognar once again gained remarkable access, not just to a transformed physical space but to stunningly candid professional, personal and political dynamics. With exceptional care and empathy, "American Factory" limns the hope, heartbreak and gentle humor of a corporate experiment that unfolds with initial exuberance that gives way to more than a few unresolved tensions.
What happens when an American labor force grounded in the values of collective bargaining and strong health and safety standards confronts younger colleagues schooled in the discipline and punishing self-denial of China's command-control form of capitalism? Viewers might assume they can predict the answer, and they might not be entirely wrong. But to its enormous credit, "American Factory" isn't content merely to stay on the surface, however appealingly simple.
Sure, there are some unsurprising vignettes, such as when Chinese workers attend a seminar warning them of Americans' puppy dog-like enthusiasm and unearned confidence; or when American managers take a bemused trip to China to learn about its rigorous, ritualized business practices. Fanning out across the enormous Fuyao shop floor, Reichert, Bognar and their team of cinematographers capture far more subtle and affecting encounters, the stakes of which are raised to excruciating levels when quotas and quality goals aren't met.
Demonstrating compassion for every one of their subjects, the filmmakers leave it to the audience to decide whether the self-sacrifice demanded of Chinese laborers is dangerously oppressive, or merely the new late-late-capitalist normal. When unionization rears its inevitable head, who winds up being for and against is similarly open to question.
But evenhandedness should not be confused with neutrality: As filmmakers who live and work in Dayton, Reichert and Bognar's loyalties are clearly with the laborers -- American and Chinese -- and the autonomy, respect and rights they deserve. But they extend similar sympathy to the managers navigating tough new realities on both sides of the ocean; nowhere is their equanimity on fuller display than in their portrayal of Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, a tough, ambitious, admirably openhearted executive who shares a surprising degree of self-examination -- even doubt -- as the film progresses.
Filmed with extraordinary attention to environmental detail and revealing human interactions, "American Factory" is that rare documentary that's not only compelling in its content but a profound sensory pleasure, with its themes of transparency and reflection aptly captured by the sparkling sheets of glass and spotless machinery of the Fuyao plant, a visual backdrop echoed in the woodwinds that dominate Chad Cannon's graceful musical score.
As the first movie to emerge from Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground production shingle at Netflix, "American Factory" feels like a perfect vehicle for the company's mission to lift up stories from underrepresented groups in ways that transcend unhelpful (and inaccurate) binaries. In claiming a small patch of working-class Ohio with such nuance and expansiveness, "American Factory" winds up containing multitudes.