There have been a number of exceptional documentaries released in 2019 covering a range of political, historical and pop culture topics.
Perhaps none sits quite on the threshold of where the United States stands currently in an everchanging global economy than the latest Netflix release, “American Factory.”
A top non-fiction film and award winner to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this immersive look at international business, the daily struggles of blue collar workers and the growing threat of automation to large scale employment was recently chosen by former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to be the first film produced under their Higher Ground Productions label.
Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert embed themselves for several years at a closed General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio which was in the process of being reopened to mass produce automobile glass for the Chinese company Fuyao.
The filmmakers have incredible, unfathomable access both to employees on the floor and at home, but more astoundingly to top level execs at Fuyao speaking frankly in closed door meetings filmed as part of the documentary.
Though viewers are likely to take one side or the other, Bognar and Reichert tell the story of Fuyao Glass America (FGA) as impartially as possible which allows their subjects remarkable authenticity as a result.
“American Factory” approaches the Dayton plant from socioeconomic perspectives, but it’s nearly impossible to remove a viewer’s political biases from factoring in as audiences decide whether or not to support Fuyao’s corporate agenda or a growing effort on the floor to unionize labor.
Perhaps the first scene that truly showcases the uniqueness and access of “American Factory” relates to the film’s lone political figure, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.
Brown gives a speech at the grand opening of the FGA facility and includes unprompted support for the unionization of Fuyao employees, the first major reference to the theme in the film.
Almost immediately, Bognar and Reichert take audiences behind the scenes with furious Fuyao executives railing against Brown’s brazen politization of their event, leaving one exec to swear that the senator would never set foot on the property again and suggesting that he would use ribbon cutting scissors to decapitate Brown.
In this regard, the filmmakers do a remarkable job of showcasing the feelings audiences would expect the subjects to have off camera by somehow getting all involved to be exceptionally candid in their remarks.
Since the film’s release, Fuyao has disputed some of the translations in the film, specifically remarks made by FGA chief executive officer Jeff Liu, where he is shown telling company chairman Cao Dewang that American employees supporting unionization efforts at the company had been fired.
At its core, “American Factory” is a film about the cultural divide between blue collar Ohio workers on one side of the spectrum and Fuyao corporate management and supervisors sent from other facilities in China on the other.
The duality of the struggle for these two cultures to co-exist in business is a tenuous balance and one that Bognar and Reichert go to great lengths to ensure their film tells both sides of this international tale.
Viewers get incredible insight into how the American and Chinese subjects perceive each other at the outset and how that perception changes over time. What appear to be cultural sensitivity training seminars for incoming Chinese staff are perhaps the most surprising and telling scenes in the entire documentary as Fuyao execs frankly describe American workers as uninspired and entitled.
The filmmakers include a wide array of subjects that color the documentary well, though few aside from Chairman Cao play a significant enough role in the film to be especially memorable on their own.
This generalization affords “American Factory” the ability to universalize the stories of over 2,000 workers while still feeling extensive.
Cinematography is bold throughout and often makes the seemingly mundane routine of making automobile glass feel artistic and beautiful.
“American Factory” should prove to be a major player come awards season as Bognar and Reichert took home the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at Sundance.
With Netflix continuing a strong push in the category and the film being the first produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground, “American Factory” seems likely to be an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary next winter, if not the presumptive favorite.
An easily accessible film thanks to Netflix’s decide to stream it day and date with its limited theatrical release, “American Factory” should be atop any ardent cinephile’s queue and is the best documentary to date in 2019.