It feels a bit surreal at first, but there it is, happening on-screen: The Chinese president of a Chinese-owned factory is coaching a roomful of Chinese workers on how to increase the productivity of their American coworkers, whom they work together with in Dayton.
“You need some skills to handle Americans,” says Fuyao Glass America president Jeff Daochuan Liu. “There’s a culture in the U.S. where children are showered with encouragement. So everyone who grows up in the U.S. is overconfident. Americans love being flattered to death.”
This scene is at the heart of the conflict in American Factory—the first Netflix offering from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground—which has earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
In 2015, Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang reopened a shuttered General Motors plant that previously served as the lifeblood of the Dayton community. While locals who lost their GM jobs were initially enthusiastic about the opportunity to return to work, the film goes on to detail the challenges of two very different cultures and approaches to labor coming together. American Factory spans nearly three years and utilizes a fly-on-the-wall approach to documentary filmmaking. Beyond the cultural themes explored, the film poses even larger questions about the future of work as we speed toward an increasingly globalized world.
Ahead of the Oscars on Feb. 9, directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar spoke on the phone with Fortune to discuss the varying viewpoints of the American and Chinese subjects, the challenges in making the film, as well as the unexpected response it has received in China—even though Netflix is not available there.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
It’s clear what the Academy thinks of the movie, but what sort of reception did you receive from the subjects of the film?
Julia Reichert: Well, starting with the high-ups at Fuyao, they were really generous and positive. I would say that their butts wiggled a few times, and they were like, “Well, I wish I hadn’t said it that way.” But honestly, overall, they said, “We want all of our Chinese staff to see this film.” The chairman [Cao Dewang] desperately wants to get it seen all over China—he’s been bugging us about it again and again. It is being seen all over China, pirated, which is good, because it’s the full version. It’s quite surprising to us. Their response has been, “We learned a lot.”
There were things that made them uncomfortable, but on the other hand, it was what they said or did. Now, the American workers, the general response has been, “Wow, you really captured it. This is really fair, and yes, this is my experience as a worker there.” Of course, in general, blue-collar folks are gonna be pranksters, and funny, and rueful. So, for example—you remember the supervisor [in the movie] who says in China to another supervisor in China, “I wish they’d put duct tape on [the employees’] mouths, because then they’d work harder”? Well, we heard that a number of workers put duct tape on their mouths that next day, after our initial screening in Dayton, to make fun of that supervisor.
Steven Bognar: No one’s gotten bent out of shape about something they said or did. We tried to make it nuanced and complex. The chairman in one moment could be a real driving hard-ass. A tough capitalist. And then another minute he’s reflecting on his life, questioning his choices, missing his youth when things were simpler. Everybody in the film we tried to give that level of complexity, and maybe the nonnegative response has been helped by that.
Both of you are residents of Dayton, where the factory is located. In the six months or so since the film’s release, have you observed any notable changes involving the Fuyao factory? The film ends in a state of tension, with the unionization effort quelled and the Chinese supervisors planning to fire workers in favor of automated machines.
Bognar: The factory is still going strong—they’re expanding. They just announced they’re going to hire 100 people. There was an event about a week and a half ago where the chairman came to town, and the governor of Ohio was there. Now, we’re still in touch with a lot of folks who worked on the factory floor. Depending on who you ask, people say things are better, or people say it’s more of the same. There’s a range of opinions.
Reichert: Yeah, I would say mostly the people I talk to say it’s same old, same old—things have not gotten better. Have there been any changes because of the film? It’s an interesting question, but I would say no—that we know about.
Bognar: It may not be for us to answer actually, because we’re not in the factory anymore. I’d like to think the film really showed how hard it is to do this. How the cultural differences are far deeper than people might have assumed they would be. And that created real challenges for everybody.
Reichert: We hope the film will, in general, urge people to see what globalization looks like on a human scale. And also [inspire] a certain kind of empathy for people who do that hard labor. They’re smart people, they work really hard, and they deserve a living wage. And they’re not getting it.
Bognar: In the early days we felt like there was a lot of empathy going in both directions. The Americans could see folks like Wong, in the movie, who misses his kids—he won’t see them for two years. The Americans had real empathy for him and what he was going through. And the Chinese folks could see that the Americans had really been struggling to get decent jobs again. But then as pressure mounted and the plant was not making a profit, and everybody was getting the screws tightened on them, I feel like that empathy went away.
The subjects’ trust in you is a big part of the movie, and I read about how often you visited the factory to establish a rapport, and how you brought in Chinese filmmakers to assist with telling that side of the story. You had some really candid interviews with the chairman and other higher-ups as well. Why do you think Fuyao agreed to open up so much to you?
Reichert: One factor for sure was that the chairman himself made the decision to give us access. Some Dayton business leaders came to us and said, “Hey, you made this film 10 years ago about the closing of this plant. It’s a terribly sad film. Everybody’s in tears. How about you make a film about the positive reopening?” We said, “Well, that would be really interesting, but we can take zero money from the company”—which I think surprised them. We would have to have full access, and they would have to have no editorial control.
Those were our three conditions, and it went right up to the chairman, who I believe saw the last film about that plant, and he said yes. He’s a maverick, he believes in transparency. Now, in a Chinese business, as you can imagine, it’s a privately owned business. Once the chairman says yes, the answer is yes all the way down the line. Even if people didn’t like it. Some of the vice presidents and HR people might not have liked that we were there all the time.
Bognar: There were definitely meetings where we were told, “Ah, not this one folks. Come back tomorrow.” But a key factor in our documentary practice is we just keep showing up. We were there for three years. We shot 1,200 hours of footage. We live a short 25-minute drive to that plant. If we lived in New York or L.A., we couldn’t have made this film—or it certainly would be a very different film. But the fact that we could go there constantly for three years and shoot that much footage … we had badges, we didn’t have to have a handler with us beyond the first week or so.
We could come and go whenever we wanted. It was an extraordinary amount of trust, and we tried to honor that trust by being fair. We weren’t out to make a muckraking film or a hatchet job. But I think the depth that we hopefully achieved is because we just kept showing up.
Reichert: It’s like we became part of the wallpaper. And the turnover there, I will say, continues to be—and was—very, very high. So after a while we were there longer than a lot of people who worked there. I don’t know how many HR people they went through, but we were there, and they’d gone through a few more. A lot of the vice presidents, supervisors rolled over, and we were just always there.
Bognar: And we also had to persuade people. We would say to people, “Look, we need you to be your authentic self, we need you to be real. And we’re trying to tell a true story here, and if you take a chance on us, we will treat you fairly—but this is historic, and it’s not going to be easy, and there might be moments where you wanna tell us to get the hell out of the room. But please let us try to tell this story, and we’ll do the best we can.”
The entire third act of the movie centered mostly on the unionizing efforts, and it sort of builds up to this climactic vote at the end. I’m sure you could only guess things would play out that way when you started filming, but at what point did you realize you wanted to structure the movie in that way, and why?
Reichert: We had zero idea there’d be a union drive. We know about unions, and it’s a big plant, but we didn’t know anything about it when we started. Within the first year or so we were presented with two things we didn’t expect: One was, this union avoidance company—consultants—which is called Labor Relations Institute, one of hundreds of such firms all across the country. Any time there’s a union drive at a big plant or even a big workplace like a white-collar workplace, they’re going to hire union avoidance people in general.
So in the editing we realized that on the blue-collar side, their complaints were being addressed by the union. The pay, the lack of advancement, and that they could fire you at will—all that stuff. The union was capturing those grievances and putting those forward. On the other side, the company hired this multimillion-dollar firm, so we could see that was coming to a head. Honestly, we were very exhausted after three years of filming, five of us in the plant, mostly daily, so this provided a really dramatic end to the plot. Then everybody gives their broad life perspective before we come to the ending, which we chose to be American workers leaving the plant going into their own lives, chatting, and Chinese workers leaving their plant and going into their own lives. The whole point of that is to say, visually, these folks have more in common than they have with their bosses.
Bognar: Yeah, and their cultural differences are, at the heart of it, less than they might think. Everybody wants a decent job so they can have a decent life. This is pretty universal, and going to China was really eye-opening for us. We try not to have stereotypes, but as Americans, as Midwesterners, before we made this film, I think we were living in certain stereotypes about how folks in China are just nose to the grindstone, and they want to work hard because there’s a love of the labor. And actually I just think that’s a total bad stereotype. Chinese people work hard because that’s the societal norm, but they want to go fishing. They want to roll on the carpet with their kids. It’s a deeply human thing, it’s just that what’s normalized is different in China—12-hour days, six days a week—than it is here.
The film has made its way to China at a time of tense geopolitical relations between China and the U.S. What has been the response to American Factory in China?
Bognar: About 10 days or so after the film’s launch on Netflix, we started hearing that all over China, people were watching the movie. Now, Netflix is not in China. They’re in Taiwan and Hong Kong. So if you’re there, you can watch the movie with Chinese subtitles with all the English language dialogue. And some enterprising, I imagine, young person or people somehow bootlegged the film from Netflix, ripped it, and then uploaded it on Chinese social media sites. And then thousands of people started watching it, and then comments started coming on social media, on Weibo and other platforms. And all the hopes we had for conversations in the U.S. about the future of work, sustainability for working people … those kinds of comments were being said in China.
It was so exciting that the kinds of conversations we hoped would happen were happening there as well as here. The funny thing is filmmakers are very opposed to piracy, but in this case we’re happy because Netflix is not in China, and it’s the full uncensored movie. We never submitted it to the censorship board of the Chinese government—we didn’t want to see it censored—so we’re happy people are seeing it the way it is.
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