Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Tribeca with Abe: American Factory

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which ran April 24th – May 5th.

American Factory
Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert
Tribeca Critics’ Week

The United States and China are vastly different countries, even if they compete on similar levels for certain international positions related to economy, industry, and other areas. The way their citizens live and work separates them greatly, and the deep contrasts that exist are noticeable even on a casual visit to either country or examination of their leading businesses. Nonetheless, there is a considerable amount of cooperation between the two in sectors of intersecting interests, and both cultures will influence a company that operates within both nations. Creating an American subset of a Chinese corporation is bound to come with its challenges.

The residents of Dayton, Ohio were greatly affected by the closure of the General Motors plant in 2008, which resulted in the loss of many jobs. The opening of the American division of Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company, presents the opportunity for considerable employment and a revitalization of the struggling local economy. Pairing Chinese supervisors with American workers, the idea is to stimulate American labor with the infusion of Chinese sensibilities to create a vibrant and productive machine. While there are many benefits, deeper problems emerge as talks of forming a union stand at the center of crucial principles separating this international satellite from its parent organization.

This is a film that begins on a comedic level, translating the welcome speech given by a supervisor given to his Chinese employees, explaining the finer points of American culture, which include giving opinions, laziness, and a willingness (and freedom) to criticize their government. As the film progresses, the humor fades and, on one particularly eye-opening trip for American management to China, is replaced by a combination of wonder and horror at the practices deemed acceptable and allowable in China that could never fly in the United States, a reality that will plague the company as it seeks to placate its dissatisfied workers.

This journey is both entertaining and fascinating, sometimes simultaneously so, as the many factors that make this endeavor more complicated. Interviews with Chairman Cao Dewang are incredibly enlightening, as he spares little in his proclamation of how his American partners are not living up to his expectations. Following a number of employees at all levels is enormously informative, and the level of access to all facets of the company is truly impressive, likely due to Dewang’s desire to promote the project, unaware that his sternly-delivered assessments might paint him or the company in a negative light. This is a documentary that knows when to be playful and when to be deadly serious, and it navigates that journey expertly.


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