“The most important thing is not how much money we earn,” the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang says in “American Factory” soon before we see him on a private jet. What’s important, he says, are Americans’ views toward China and its people.
In 2016, Cao opened a division of Fuyao, his global auto-glass manufacturing company, in a shuttered General Motors factory near Dayton, Ohio. Blaming slumping S.U.V. sales, G.M. had closed the plant — known as the General Motors Moraine Assembly Plant — in December 2008, throwing thousands out of work the same month the American government began a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry. The Dayton factory remained idle until Fuyao announced it was taking it over, investing millions and hiring hundreds of local workers, numbers it soon increased.
The veteran filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who are a couple and live outside of Dayton, documented the G.M. plant when it closed. They included the image of the last truck rolling off the line in their 2009 short, “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant.” That crystallizing image also appears in “American Factory,” which revisits the plant six years later. The feature-length story they tell here is complex, stirring, timely and beautifully shaped, spanning continents as it surveys the past, present and possible future of American labor. (This is the first movie that Barack and Michelle Obama’s company Higher Ground Productions is releasing with Netflix.)
“American Factory” opens with a brief, teary look back at the plant’s closing that sketches in the past and foreshadows the difficult times ahead. The story proper begins in 2015 amid the optimistic bustle of new beginnings, including a rah-rah Fuyao presentation for American job seekers. Bognar and Reichert, who shot the movie with several others — the editor is Lindsay Utz — have a great eye for faces and they quickly narrow in on the range of expressions in the room. Some applicants sit and listen stoically; one woman, her hand over her mouth, gently rocks in her seat, tapping out a nervous rhythm as the Fuyao representative delivers his pitch.
With detail and sweep, interviews and you-are-there visuals, the filmmakers quickly establish a clear, strong narrative line as the new enterprise — Fuyao Glass America — gets off the ground. The optimism of the workers is palpable; the access the filmmakers secured remarkable. Bognar and Reichert spent a number of years making “American Factory,” a commitment that’s evident in its layered storytelling and the trust they earned. American and visiting Chinese workers alike open their homes and hearts, including Wong He, an engaging, quietly melancholic furnace engineer who speaks movingly of his wife and children back in China.
His is just one story in an emotionally and politically trenchant chronicle of capitalism, propaganda, conflicting values and labor rights. As the factory ramps up, optimism gives way to unease, dissent and fear. Some workers are hurt, others are at risk; glass breaks, tempers fray. Both the Chinese and American management complain about production and especially about the American workers who, in turn, seem mainly grateful for a new shot. A forklift operator named Jill Lamantia is living in her sister’s basement when we first meet her. A job at Fuyao allows her to move into her own apartment, but like everyone else she struggles with the company’s demands.
By the time the documentary shifts to China, for a visit by American managers to the Fuyao mother ship, it has become clear that something will have to give. The American subsidiary is losing money and Chairman Cao, as he’s called, is not happy. His frustration can seem amusing, but as his dissatisfaction mounts, the temperature grows colder and management becomes openly hostile. For viewers who have never peered inside a Chinese factory, these scenes — with their singalongs, team-building exercises and extravagant pageants — may seem strange or perhaps a gung-ho variation on contemporary corporate management practice (cue the next Apple confab).
“American Factory” is political without being self-servingly didactic or strident, connecting the sociopolitical dots intelligently, sometimes with the help of a stirring score from Chad Cannon that evokes Aaron Copland. The filmmakers don’t villainize anyone, though a few participants come awfully close to twirling waxed mustaches, like an American manager who jokes to a Chinese colleague that it would be a good idea to duct-tape the mouths of talky American workers. It’s a shocking exchange — only the Chinese manager appears concerned that they’re on camera — simply because of the openness of the antagonism toward the company’s own labor force.
It’s these men and women — Timi Jernigan, John Crane, Shawnea Rosser, Robert Allen and so many others — whose optimism and disappointment give the movie its emotional through-line and whose stories stand in contrast to Cao’s own self-made tale. He recalls that the China of his youth was poor; now he is, according to Forbes, one of “China’s richest” and his hobbies include golfing and collecting art. You see the fruits of his endeavors in “American Factory,” in scenes of him relaxing and pontificating. And working too, of course, always working, including in a luxurious office where a couple of socialist realist paintings show him against the sky like a sleekly updated Mao — an image that the filmmakers linger on, letting its meaning bloom like a hundred flowers.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.