‘American Factory’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary – The Rust Belt Doc’s Essential Lessons About America, China, Unions, and Global Capitalism – Why We Need To Keep Telling These Stories

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‘America Factory’, the 2019 documentary about a glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, won the best feature documentary award at last night’s Oscars.

The film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground company and available on Netflix, is a masterpiece in observational journalism. It’s the second year in a row that a documentary about the Midwest got nominated for an Oscar, after‘Mind the Gap’ in 2019, a stunning skateboarding memoir by Bing Liu.

The success of both movies, like the acquisition of ‘Moundsville’ by PBS distributor NETA, and James and Deb Fallows’ “Our Towns” book and coming HBO film, shows the appetite for reported storytelling — not related to presidential campaigns and elections — about former industrial America as it transitions away from lucrative manufacturing toward an undetermined future — both promising and scary — that is not as industrially wealthy, has lots of opportunities for life and rebirth, and is challenged by automation, aging population, brain drain and opioid addiction.

I had seen it before but I watched ‘American Factory’ again on Monday during my lunch break. You should, too.

The backstory is the winds of global trade and capitalism. For over a decade, Chinese investors have been shopping in Europe and the U.S. for companies to acquire so they could manufacture closer to the markets where they were selling.  Since Beijing embraced state-sponsored capitalism after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, it’s invited integration with the industrial West. When I reported for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels, I accompanied a Chinese CEO on what was basically a shopping trip. Over a meal, he casually mentioned he would be happy to spend tens of billions of dollars on buying a “top-three European food company.”

The particular incarnation recounted in ‘American Factory’ is the fate of a glass-making plant in Dayton, Ohio. It used to belong to GM. Now it’s been acquired by China’s Fuyao.

What makes the film so great, I think, is the access Bognar and Reichert negotiated with Fuyao, with the help of Chinese filmmakers. In the manner of prize-winning journalism, it channels a lucid, conscience-raising vision of what’s actually happening.

GM can’t make money off the factory. Chinese investors think they can. The workplace cultures, forged by history and business practice, are radically different. The Chinese firm pays its employees under $15 an hour, half the GM rate, and expect total unrelenting devotion. They dismiss concepts like work-life balance and fight unions.

Below the forces driving investment and acquisition of capital are people doing their best to survive. Just like in ‘Moundsville’, the characters in ‘American Factory’ are surfing forces beyond their control.

In China, companies and workers were formed by authoritarian socialist rule, followed by a giant leap into capitalism, managed by the state. Western companies were happy to come calling, helping Beijing negotiate trade deals and join the WTO, and jacking up profits by moving their production to China.

In America, business culture was formed by a post-World War Two boom that invited unionization and lifted generations out of the Depression into the middle class, followed by a sharper focus on profits and returning value to shareholders.

As in any colonial enterprise, cultures clash. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” an American manager tells workers, as he offers three shifts, with a “30-minute unpaid lunch” and two paid 15-minute breaks.

The Chinese manager lecturing his Chinese charges who’ve moved to Ohio to work educates them.  “America is a place to let your personality run free,” he says. “You’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” Other lessons: “They are very obvious.” “They don’t hide anything.” “Everything is practical and realistic.” “They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.”

There is sweetness in these efforts to understand, and the best attempts at connecting, like when an American worker invites Chinese migrants to his house to check out his handguns and eat turkey with all the trimmings.

In Ohio, they’re enduring the reality that their slice of the planet has become a little bit poorer, and that the 1950s are not coming back. What’s next for Dayton and other similar places in the Midwest? Universal Basic Income? Tourism? Tech? Stronger unions? I don’t know but everything needs to be on the table and the truth must light the way; we need to keep sharing stories like ‘American Factory.’

John W. Miller

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