TV-14 for language and just for generally adult content. Nothing offensive happens, but I dare you to show this to a kid. There's no way for a child to empathize with this movie. Maybe that is me assuming a lot. Maybe your kid is wildly vulnerable to the plight of others. But that's mostly what's happening here. There's also some stuff that could be read as pretty racist in terms of comments made on both sides, but it is more one sided than another. Regardless, most kids probably just wouldn't get on board American Factory. TV-14.
DIRECTORS: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Yeah, it's the documentary that Obamas produced. Look at hippie-dippie Tim writing an article talking about how important the Obama's documentary is. He works as a teacher. His hands aren't calloused, except where he grades papers. (You could stab me right in my left middle finger and I wouldn't even feel it.) Yeah, I watched the Obamas' documentary because it is up for an Academy Award. But you know what? I wish I watched it before they announced the Academy Awards. A) That would give me amazing hipster street cred and B) it probably means that I'm a better person than I actually am.
When the trailer came out for this, my bias instantly colored it with what I believed about foreign companies coming into America. I always simplified the problem way too much. I thought, like many of the subjects of this documentary thought, that, while I would love an American company to create more jobs in America, jobs are jobs. It's good that a Honda plant or a Toyota plant comes into the U.S. because people need jobs. American Factory probably explains how icky that concept is, and probably by accident. I get the vibe that Bognar and Reichert probably were optimistic about the creation of a new plant in Dayton, a place where I used to live, to make up for the shut down GM plant. But American Factory is all about how culturally different we are versus how culturally the same we are. When I watched the trailer, I thought it was going to be all about how we're one big labor force worldwide. Now I get the vibe from this movie that America is considered the laziest country on Earth by people who never get to see their families.
China comes across quite scary in this movie. Like, I thought I understood the perception of the Chinese towards the Americans before this movie. Nope, I'm a big dope who understood nothing. It didn't help that almost every American in this movie is painfully overweight. I got back on the diet hard after watching this one. Throughout the film, the movie keeps showing groups of Chinese employees and bosses saying absolutely terrible things about America in general. I don't know if the people who were saying these things thought that no one was going to translate them for the documentary or that they just didn't care because they were focused on the now, but whoo-wee that was rough. It seemed like every time a group of Chinese people were together speaking Chinese, they found a reason to badmouth Americans. It's a real bummer because I'm paranoid that my exchange students are saying these things about me.
There's something really intimidating about the Chinese labor force. The movie shifts to Beijing for a couple of scenes. The American visitors show up to corporate headquarters to learn about how Chinese works stay so efficient. Of course, one of them is wearing a Jaws tee-shirt, which doesn't really sell America too well. The other gentlemen, while overweight, are at least wearing polo shirts, which I guess is better than nothing. But the Jaws tee-shirt is pretty cringe-worthy. It's this instant culture clash. The Chinese in Beijing are all fit and healthy looking. The people at the table are wearing suits and ties and then the Americans walk in, morbidly obese and wearing Jaws tee-shirts. It's such a rough moment to defend. But it is also a movie about culture clashes. For five seconds, I thought that maybe the Chinese were onto something and that maybe we need to look at ourselves as a culture. But then I realized that China seems like a terrible place to work.
The film from that point on stresses the almost obsessive Nationalism of the Chinese workers. Indoctrinated through song praising the glory of the corporation, there's something absolutely terrifying about the way that the Chinese workers make the American workers their enemies. Rather than questioning the profits of Fuyao, the Chinese workers try indoctrinating some American workers into the Chinese work ethic of one or two days off a month and not seeing family. The others, they start collecting evidence of their ties to the UAW. There's this really damning scene of a Chinese worker holding up his phone to show a picture of his friend. Pridefully, the worker tells about how that guy is going to be fired in a few days because he's been collecting evidence that he's a union sympathizer. It's oddly cutthroat for such a crummy paying job.
There are times that I'm pro-union and there are times that I am anti-union. I didn't love being in a union when I was teaching public school. It was all very aggressive and I didn't feel like I got a ton of support when I needed it. But I also know that some people absolutely need a union. The auto workers needed a union and the documentary proves that. There's a very disturbing scene in Beijing where all these old ladies were on a pile of broken glass, sorting it out by hand without special gloves for recycling. That attitude carried back to the Fuyao plant in Dayton. The Chinese were just dumping stuff in rivers. People would be injured on the job and their jobs would just be given away. It was always under the umbrella that the employee messed something else up, but that was just for legal purposes. And the most disheartening thing was that the people who were saying that they were going to take care of their employees were Americans. I know that it is a sin to make every comparison to Hitler and the Holocaust, but I couldn't help but be reminded of the collaborators who would turn on their own people for better conditions. It's heartbreaking.
American Factory doesn't really provide the answers to the problem though. On occasion, I've discussed this as a fault of the documentary. It stinks to find out all of this information and then not really have an alternative solution. But this is a really complicated concept. This isn't a quick fix. Fundamentally, the world is becoming a smaller place. Despite the fact that I completely believe that America is the best country in the world to live in, China economically has become extremely impressive. But there's something really telling in a world where people tell me that Trump is going to do great things for the economy. (He's not.) I keep hearing all of these issues being swept under the rug of the economy. Yeah, the economy is important, but also look at the quality of life of the Chinese workers. It makes sense that they should be working from sun up to sun down. It makes sense that they don't see their families ever. It is mind-blowing to them that Americans have social lives. Kind of all of this fight for the economy means a selling of the soul. I don't love hearing all of the awful things that have been sacrificed in the name of a better economy. I don't care how impressive Beijing looks economically. I don't want to live there because it seems like it treats workers who are struggling to make a buck like cogs in a machine. I'm bothered by the fact that they don't mind working insanely long hours. Why is no one yelling at corporate to take a smaller profit and ensuring that everyone has a modicum of quality in their lives?
If American Factory is about a culture clash, I, too, am part of that clash. Like the Americans in this movie, I wanted the Chinese to become the Americans' brothers, both in arms and in spirit. But this story was telling about how fundamentally different people are. Are the Chinese still people? Of course and there's so much respect there. But I also know that it takes more than simply transplanting people to a new country to find commonality.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.