American Factory: A Film By Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar

In September, I watched American Factory, the first film to be acquired and released by Higher Ground Productions—a company set up by Barack and Michelle Obama—in partnership with Netflix. American Factory is 1 hour 55 minutes long documentary that is truly compelling to watch. The documentary is directed by veteran filmmakers, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar who are clearly in my demographic of the over 60s!

The film is introduced by a 12-minute discussion between Barack and Michelle Obama with the directors of the film where they—the Obamas— share their passion and commitment to the power of storytelling.

“We all have a scared story in us, right?  A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organize our lives,” says President Obama in the clip. “A good story is a good story. If it’s a documentary like yours or if it’s a scripted story that helps people understand something they didn’t understand before, we want to see if we can give voice to it.”

The Obamas are moving into the story business and American Factory is an outstanding documentary made by two remarkable American filmmakers in which they really do “let the people own their stories” and to speak for themselves. There is no voice over, no expert pundit, just the voices and experiences of the ordinary diverse working-class Americans sharing their story from the post-industrial Ohio. In 2014, a Chinese billionaire, Cae DeWang opened a new Fuyao Glass factory in the derelict General Motors plant which was shut down in 2008. Cae DeWang invested $40 million, hired 2,000 blue collar Americans, and brought 200 Chinese workers, technicians, and management from his factory in China to live and work with the Americans. In 2014, Fuyao Glass was greeted as a saviour of the community. Throughout the film, Cae DeWang, is referred to as the “Chairman” and by 2016, he had invested nearly $1 billion, leveraging the local tax breaks.  

There are many messages in the film: cultural clashes as the early days of hope and optimism give way to divisions between American and Chinese workers, a tragic comedy about the incompatibility of American and Chinese workplace. Chinese capitalism clashes with American capitalism and Chinese leadership and management styles clash with those of America.

The role of unions, loyalty and the notions of workplace family are laid bare as the filmmakers take viewers on a journey to experience how these opposites are played out on the screen with unprecedent access. At one point the American managers are brought to China to see and experience capitalism with “Chinese characteristic”. Since 2018, Fuyao Glass America has been profitable, and provides 2,200 American workers with jobs as well as 200 Chinese workers.

American Factory is an absorbing, discomfiting and desperately sad film but one which I urge you to watch as the “cultural clashes” fade into the background and you see the real threat to workers is the jobs soon to be lost to automation. I am the product of first-generation immigrant parents who both worked in factories to give their five children the college and university education, our passports out of poverty. The film stirred memories of their daily routine, the uniforms, the clocking in and out of work, the long hours they spent in these factories and my father’s activism as a trade unionist.

The last five years, I lived in Lagos, Nigeria and in my capacity as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I travelled across the seven regions of the African continent. I saw first hand the impact of the presence of Chinese capital in both state and private sector and of Chinese and African workers building large scale infrastructure projects from roads, airports, across high growth sectors including manufacturing, agriculture, retail. After watching this remarkable film, I wonder what a film set in Africa would reveal about the 21st century globalised economies.

The filmmakers leave viewers with the following captions over images of workers leaving the factory in America and China and the future of work.

“Up to 375 million people globally will need to find entirely new kinds of jobs by 2030 because of automation”.

“How workers, governments and business tackle these seismic shifts will define the future of work”.

American Factory was acquired by Netflix in association with Higher Ground Productions out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the directing award for U.S. documentary.

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