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‘American Factory’ arrives in time fraught with U.S.-China troubles

Netflix documentary humanizes international trade, labor fights in Dayton

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, makes an appearance in the Netflix documentary “American Factory,” including making comments encouraging a union movement at the facility in question in the Dayton area. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, makes an appearance in the Netflix documentary “American Factory,” including making comments encouraging a union movement at the facility in question in the Dayton area. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Timing is everything, and the Netflix documentary “American Factory” comes out in times tailor-made for its story of the rebirth of a former U.S. truck-making facility as a Chinese glass manufacturer in the heart of the Rust Belt. 

Dayton, Ohio, has been in the headlines lately for the horrific mass shooting earlier this month that killed 10 and injured 27. But the Gem City has a proud history as the home of the Wright brothers, the Dayton peace accords and an industrial hub. 

That manufacturing base has taken a hard hit for years now, though. Dayton-based filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert chronicled part of this in their 2009 documentary “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” about the 2008 shuttering of GM’s Moraine Assembly, long a fixture of the auto industry. 

With “American Factory,” Bognar and Reichert got a crack at a sequel. 

When Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang began looking for U.S. locations for his Fuyao firm, he saw an opportunity at the vacant Moraine site.

Fuyao Glass America started production in 2016 to supply automotive glass, bringing over Chinese workers to complement Americans on the payroll, many of whom were laid-off GM workers from the Moraine plant.

Bognar and Reichert were there from the start, documenting the private and public, from Dewang to middle managers from China and Ohio to the hourly wage earners.

There is optimism at the onset of talks among Fuyao and local and state officials; tension between not just managers and labor, but Chinese and Americans, as some cultural differences devolve from amusing to toxic. And things start to go sideways as the facility misses profit and productivity goals. 

“We saw that happening as everyone felt that pressure,” Reichert said.  

They shot more than 1,200 hours of footage over three years. They captured  the heady early days of planning, and the tension amid comments by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown at the ribbon-cutting that Fuyao America should be a union shop. There are quiet moments showing how lonely Chinese workers get, and how alienated many of the rehired GM workers are after their attempt to unionize fails in 2017. 

“We wanted to make a film with oppositional voices who would go on to say, ‘That’s fair,’ if they see the film,” Bognar said.

Most all that transpires in “American Factory” happens before the current U.S.-China trade war got ugly. Even assuming a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries, the fissures over global trade are never far from the surface.

But the film at the same time shows the effort by all sides to make things work, economically, socially and culturally, even if it’s an exceedingly complex task. It is ultimately a film about people trying to make something work, and how such complicated situations affect those people. 

That kind of human touch might be what attracted the attention of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and their production company, Higher Ground Productions. “American Factory” is their first crack at the movie business, and it reflects the 44th president’s focus on stories that show the breadth of the American experience.

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“We all have a sacred story in us, right? A story that gives us meaning and purpose and how we organize our lives. If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face to face, if you can forge a connection, you may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together,” the former president said in Netflix promotional piece the Obamas did with the filmmakers to discuss the movie. 

The story is not over yet. Reflecting some of the conflict Bognar and Reichert document amid workers’ attempts to join the United Auto Workers, Fuyao is expected to pay a $120,000 settlement to the National Labor Relations Board and three former employees who say they were terminated because of the unionization effort, the Dayton Daily News reports

And Bloomberg Law reports that the documentary might even help some former employees who are suing Fuyao for issues ranging from discrimination to breach of contract. 

Those are small data points in the broader story of the U.S.-China trade war. But they make a lot more sense reflected in the story “American Factory” tells. 

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