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Great Wall

Chinese and American cultures clash in Obama-produced Netflix doc

American Factory


No we can’t.

That’s the takeaway from watching American Factory, the new documentary marking the first collaboration of a high-profile partnership between Netflix and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. It examines what happens when a Chinese company tries to resurrect a manufacturing plant in the American heartland, and the irreconcilable differences between what the two cultures value.

In 2008, fresh in the wake of The Great Recession, a once-successful General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio was forced to shut down. Two years later, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang brought his international powerhouse Fuyao Glass to the abandoned industrial community. For those who’d been struggling to find work for years, it felt like a godsend.

It was also the last happy moment.

Despite initial promises the Chinese corporation would embrace American practices and promote local leadership within the factory’s ranks—Dewang uses the term “When in Rome…”—those disingenuous intentions fall by the wayside as the plant can’t match the company’s outrageous output demands set by native China’s cheap labor, excessive work hours, and a mindset to never question authority.

In America, the customer is always right; in China, the company is. Ironically, Fuyao’s specialty (car windows) serves as a perfect metaphor of the error in that thinking: seemingly transparent, but ultimately fragile. As these two conflicting ethos come to a head, Fuyao’s American employees begin to revolt by bringing a union groundswell movement to the non-union factory.

It’s fascinating to watch that clash unfold. At first, Fuyao’s response is comical, but it evolves into something strange and, eventually, ruthless. You think U.S. corporate fat cats are heartless? Well, here comes a titan of Chinese industry to say, “Hold my Tsingtao.”

The more employees feel their Chinese superiors need to relax the harsh and, at times, inhumane requirements, the more Dewang feels the solution is to double-down. Don’t coddle the weak; weed them out.

The Dayton workforce also includes Chinese transplants, and some even live with co-worker host families. The bonds of friendship and respect that form are genuine, but beautiful expressions of common humanity are not enough to change authoritarian tenets.

“The point of living is to work,” Dewang says at one point. When such a mutation of hardline 20th Century Communist ideals remains a bedrock ideological foundation, there is no compromise.

Insightful but not polemical, American Factory avoids commentary. Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar document the process free of any contextualizing (or biased) narration and simply allow both sides to speak for themselves.

The degree of access feels surprising, particularly when it becomes so damning of Fuyao, but then you begin to realize that they believe it will exonerate them. That’s how wide the cultural gulf is. To Reichert’s and Bognar’s journalistic credit, it’s likely that many Chinese viewers could watch this same movie and completely side with Fuyao.

The former President and First Lady are strictly off-screen producers here, but their debut film is thoughtful, not partisan, and even opens criticism to failures of the Obama administration. It’s a timely statement about the complexities of the global market and how American workers are caught in the crosshairs.

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