American Factory review: Obamas' maiden Netflix production paints the US as a victim of globalisation

Devansh Sharma

Aug 23, 2019 13:17:22 IST

Netflix's latest documentary, American Factory, may have a simplistic title but has layers hidden beneath. It documents the life of members of the working class of the US, who are employed in an Ohio factory, owned by the Chinese company Fuyao Glass.

American Factory, the title, seems to be from the perspective of the Chinese billionaire Cho Tak Wong, who considers his extension to the US a capitalistic achievement. But a closer look into American Factory captures the essence of the working class of the US. The fact that they inherited their quality of hard work from their American forefathers, who made 'America great' in the first place, has been mentioned in depth within the documentary.

 American Factory review: Obamas maiden Netflix production paints the US as a victim of globalisation

A still from American Factory

Director duo Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar helmed the popular documentary The Last Truck way back in 2008, that revolved around a General Motors plant. American Factory seems to be its spiritual successor as it takes the story forward (as the opening moments suggest), and chronicles the reopening of the same plant as a manufacturing unit of Fuyao Glass. They are naturally more inclined towards the employees, and look at their back stories with an empathetic lens, but at the same time, get help from their Chinese collaborators Yiqian Zhang and Mijie Li to capture the Chinese employers' side of the story.

A large number of Chinese names also populate the producers' credits, and the director duo has claimed in a Vox interview that the idea of having a balance in the storytelling is possibly what attracted Michelle and Barack Obama's Higher Ground Productions to buy the documentary post Sundance Film Festival 2019.

The juxtaposition of the American and Chinese work cultures is interesting, and is also upheld as a major challenge of countries joining their forces on a project. While the Chinese believe in working overtime without questioning the authority, the Americans also take into account the intangible factors like the working environment, and how safe, innovative, creative, and healthy it is. China is obsessed with output, the very reason of their surge as a major global superpower, and hence, pay little heed to the needs of the American workers, who crave a certain standard of living that is healthy along with being ambitious. This leads to demands of a labourers' union, which the Chinese forces want to curb.

A still from American Factory

A still from American Factory

This difference of cultures is brought about in detail rather interestingly by the makers, who capture the water-cooler talk between the American employees and the boardroom conversations among the Chinese honchos through the fly-on-the-wall technique.

In fact, the Americans and the Chinese rarely talk while looking into the camera. Instead, the makers, clearly tilted towards the American workers' perspective, get them to open up after long days of work, late into night, when they are the most susceptible to heart-to-heart conversations, as revealed in the Vox interview. The director duo also employ the technique of audio interviews, where just the audio bytes of the American employees are run against the respective shots of their visuals of taking a break from their hectic work, either smoking or walking. The frequently used technique gives a sneak peak into the subjects' minds.

But by going over multiple perspectives, the makers miss out on sticking to one person's narrative, that could have served as the backbone of their documentary. In the documentary The Great Hack, also streaming on Netflix, the makers focused more on the Brittany Kaiser track since her story was the representative graph of the macro subject of the narrative. However, there is no one such dominant narrative in American Factory. This writer clearly remembers only one face from the one-hour-50-minute film, of Cho Tak Wong. The deep dive into his origin, rise, and sense of loss provide the much-needed relief from the documentary being an American-centric one.

Visually, the film is a treat to watch. Along with the director duo, cinematographers Aubrey Keith, Jeff Reichert, and Erick Stoll use the fresh automobile glass and the fascinating process of making it, to their creative advantage. The background score lends the film a sense of foreboding when it is supposed to, and a humorous touch in apt scenes.

Given American Factory is backed by the Obamas, one expected several digs at the current US President Donald Trump. However, they've chosen to give a dominant voice to the native working class of the US (though there are several accounts of the Black population there too), who seem to have their ideologies in line with Trump's idea of the US being a migrant-hostile country. Interestingly, Jeff Daochuan Liu, who is appointed as the president of Fuyao Glass America, is seen concluding a 'motivational' speech with "Let's make America great again."

American Factory is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rating: ***

All images from Netflix.

Updated Date: Aug 23, 2019 13:30:21 IST