American Factory, now on Netflix and in select theaters as of today, explores post-industrial Ohio, specifically focusing on a new factory opened by a Chinese billionaire in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant. What seems like a godsend after 10,000 people lost their jobs at the defunct plant soon becomes much more complicated as the newly hired 2,000 blue-collar Americans work side-by-side with experienced Chinese workers. A culture clash between “high-tech China” and working-class America, further stressed by the language barrier and ongoing issues between management, labor unions, and the work force, reveal a symptomatic look at the greater state of American industry.
In anticipation of the premiere, President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama sat down with the filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar to talk about the power of storytelling, the importance of building connections, celebrating the human spirit, and giving voice to people who do not typically appear on screen. The Obamas’ Higher Ground banner was formed in order to develop titles with those tenets in mind, and American Factory is their launch title, coming about after Netflix acquired it from Participant Media during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the “Directing Award: U.S. Documentary.”
Please enjoy the preview of the conversation between the Obamas and Reichert and Bognar for American Factory below:
In anticipation of the premiere of American Factory, President Obama and Mrs. Obama sat down with the filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar to talk about what drew them to the film for Higher Ground, the power of storytelling, building connections, celebrating the human spirit, and giving voice to people who do not typically appear on screen.
While it’s great that the Obamas have put their fame and fortune behind this blue-collar documentary, this cozy chat in a relatively high-end shoppe where Secret Service agents likely lurk unseen around the perimeter doesn’t give you a sense of the story of American Factory itself. It’s a two-hour focus on one particular factory that acts as a stand-in for the relatively recent transformation in the modern American automotive industry. It reminds me of the 1986 comedy Gung Ho, a Ron Howard-directed comedy starring Michael Keaton as the very American Hunt Stevenson who’s tasked with staying relevant when a Japanese car company buys out an American plant. Except American Factory is far from a comedy; it’s much more of a depressing look at the plight of the skilled laborer, whether they’re American or Chinese.
There’s a delightful story about one American worker who invites his new Chinese friends over for Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a turkey, honeyed ham, rides on his Harley, and time spent shooting a variety of guns in the backyard. There’s also the harrowing reality of the Chinese workplace and its government-backed support, for good and ill. Leadership from the American plant visit the parent company and learn that Chinese workers only get a day or two off a month, work much more than eight hours a day, and some spend their work day sitting in piles of broken glass to pick out different recycling grades by hand (without cut-proof gloves or safety glasses). The company culture in China is also a family affair, complete with pro-industry pageantry and propaganda. The trade show celebration is perhaps the most foreign thing to American audiences, but it’s a little disturbing to see how quickly the American leadership buys into all the pomp and circumstance.