Barack and Michelle Obamas’ first film charts the fortunes of a Midwestern factory after it was bought by a Chinese company and the misery workers suffer as they are caught up in the forces of globalization.
American Factory, to be released on Netflix, shows how employees at a former General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, experienced low wages and strict conditions when the site was bought by billionaire Cao Dewang – dubbed ‘Chairman Cao’.
Employees who fail to meet the standards set by the bosses have been fired and attempts to unionize the workforce have been blocked by the firm.
‘They refer to us as the foreigners,’ one downbeat employee at the Ohio car glass factory said.
But the worker in question is American, not Chinese, and is finding life very different under new management after the new boss swept into town to reopen the shuttered, iconic former General Motors factory in 2014.
Hundreds of Chinese laborers have come to work, far from their wives, children and homeland at the factory that was closed in 2008 as General Motors went through a federally managed bankruptcy and was bailed out of with $50 billion of taxpayer funds.
This is ‘reverse globalization,’ say Oscar-nominated directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who filmed the GM plant’s closure in 2008 and returned to chronicle its reopening by Fuyao corporation for the documentary American Factory.
The film charts a Midwestern rust belt community’s journey from optimism at the giant plant’s reopening – bringing back vital jobs – toward creeping anger and disillusionment as the Chinese management imposes its strict, exhausting demands on workers and fires those who don’t comply.
Employees tell how they lost their homes when the factory closed in 2008 and the change of culture when the new management arrived.
The film tells of how 11 complaints were filed with some claiming unsafe working conditions and unfair treatment.
Cao Dewang told the documentary: ‘American workers are not efficient. Output is low, I can’t manage them.’
It also details how Chinese workers have been kept away form their families for over two years without extra pay and US employees opened up their homes to their new colleagues.
The all-access look at how both American and Chinese workers, from blue-collar to management, had their lives transformed by powerful global economic forces caught the eyes of none other than Barack and Michelle Obama.
The former first couple acquired American Factory at January’s Sundance Festival, and will release it on Netflix and in select theaters from August 21 as the first offering from their Higher Ground Productions company.
It won Sundance’s directing award for best US documentary, but was already complete when it was bought by the production company.
Last May the online streaming service announced it was partnering with the Obamas in a multi-million dollar deal to produce a variety of films and series.
The former president said in a statement last May when the deal was announced: ‘One of the simple joys of our time in public service was getting to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life, and to help them share their experiences with a wider audience.
‘That’s why Michelle and I are so excited to partner with Netflix – we hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world.’
The battle for economic supremacy between the US and a rising China is perhaps the defining geopolitical story of the 21st century.
Bognar said: ‘Mrs Obama said it [the film] resonated with her because her father had done an intense, hardworking job for decades just to provide for his family, and she felt the Midwesterness of the film in what she saw on screen.
‘She felt her own family in the film, and I think the president felt there was a certain amount of policy issues and big broad globalization’ themes in the documentary, added Reichert.
The filmmakers set out to understand what that rivalry looks like on a human level, and were granted extraordinary access by Fuyao founder and chairman Cao Dewang, who was as interested in bridging the cultural divide and showcasing Chinese capitalism as making a profit.
‘The chairman’s a maverick – he’s very much his own person, an independent self-made business guy’, said Bognar.
‘He’d seen our earlier film and liked it, and so he took a chance on us’, he added, referring to 2009’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.
In the new documentary’s early scenes, genuine attempts by the US and Chinese workers to bond with their new colleagues, including fishing and shooting lessons and shared Thanksgiving dinners, appear to bear some fruit.
But as the new Chinese owners become alarmed by heavy financial losses, they fire the American middle managers and increasingly invoke their Chinese replacements’ sense of nationalistic pride to spur harder work, leaving the workforce ever-more divided.
Despite promises, wages remain frozen far below those of the GM era, while workers’ attempts to unionize and confront slipping safety standards are aggressively shut down from above.
‘The cultural chasm was wider than people anticipated’, added Bognar, noting that the new Chinese owners felt equally baffled and let down by the attitudes of US workers.
‘To their credit, as the pressure mounted they did not kick us out, they certainly could have kicked us out at any point,’ he added.
While the factory in Moraine just outside Dayton is of symbolic significance due to its size and legacy, it is not unique – Chinese-owned factories are now abundant across the American South and Midwest.
Like Fuyao, many are housed in the same buildings formerly shut down by American bosses who shipped jobs overseas to Mexico and elsewhere.
‘You’re getting a slice of what globalization really looks like on a human level’, said Reichert, adding: ‘I think the film leaves you with a sense of unease.’
Nobody has tapped into that disquiet better than President Trump, whose 2016 victory was built on successes in Ohio and nearby Michigan and Wisconsin.
For Ohio-based Reichert and Bognar, who have spent years interviewing blue-collar workers, that result was no surprise.
‘We saw that coming, being in Ohio – the enthusiasm, the yard signs’, said Reichert. ‘Hillary Clinton was not well liked.’
Along Interstate 75, through America’s industrial heartland, there are no shortage of Chinese-owned firms like Fuyao.
They are setting up shop in states such as Ohio and Michigan, key voter battlegrounds in November, where traditional manufacturing has been hollowed out – in many cases, by trade with China.
Trump promised the region’s laid-off workers they would get back their jobs. Earlier this year, another enormous GM factory in nearby Lordstown, Ohio became the latest to close.
But in a strange quirk, even as Chinese investment in the US has plummeted by over 80 per cent under Trump’s tariff war, jobs like those provided by Fuyao have become an important lifeline.