“American Factory”, China, and the Cinema of Global Capitalism

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Julia Reichert & Steven Bognar’s documentary American Factory has been a showcased part of Netflix’s original programming this month. Initially, a grueling documentary about the plight of the American working class may seem like an odd choice for viewers looking to “Netflix and chill.” It becomes more explicable once one learns that the film is the first in a partnership between Netflix and the Obamas, where Barack & Michelle will produce, or curate, or maybe just lend their names to select programming as part of their extended post-presidency victory lap throughout proto-fascist America.

The film details the opening of a new factory making glass for cars in Dayton, Ohio. The factory, owned by Chinese company Fuyao Glass, replaces a General Motors plant which shut down a few years prior — albeit offering reduced wages to a now non-unionized workforce. The first hour or so of the film focuses on the clash of cultures between the largely American workforce and their largely Chinese supervisors. Caught in the middle is a small group of American executives who quickly find themselves under pressure to ramp up production to the same levels as that of the Chinese plants.

Watching these segments, I had a pithy tweet-sized review ready: that, like its presidential patron, American Factory mistakes economic domination for a clash of cultures that can be solved through mutual understanding. Indeed, Recihert & Bognar dedicate extended segments to scenes of a Chinese worker visiting the Great Lakes for a fishing trip and the American managers at a company function in China that involves a live stageshow featuring darklight dancers and a mass wedding.

These scenes unfold without any captions or cut-away interviews. It’s something close to Wang Bing’s slow-paced cinema verite films about the industrialization and subsequent de-industrialization of China. Wang’s films feature long, nearly wordless sequences set amidst the ruins of old factory towns. Reichert & Bognar are obviously aiming for something more palatable to a mass audience than an eight-hour arthouse experience like Wang’s West of the Tracks, but these scenes and their subject matter invite the comparison anyway.

In its second half, American Factory comes more to resemble a labour documentary in the tradition of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA and American Dream. The United Auto Workers begin attempting to unionize the Fuyao Plant. The management responds by offering a belated raise, forcing employees to attend multiple anti-union presentations by a “consulting” firm, and finding excuses to fire pro-union members. The UAW representatives are clearly correct when they talk about the lack of safety standards and the paucity of pay at the plant, but at the same time there’s something anachronistic about their efforts and the way they communicate.

The curiosity of the Obama sponsorship is that, in many ways, this is a film about the failure of the Obama presidency. The bailout of the auto industry was supposed to protect exactly those good working-class jobs that disappeared in Dayton, creating the opening for lower-paying replacements to come in. A federal Democratic government, which large unions like the UAW endorsed and campaigned for, was supposed to prevent companies from violating workplace safety and labour rights laws in the way that Fuyao does quite openly in American Factory. We see local politicians make speeches supporting the union, but they seem to offer little in the way of material help. In one of the later scenes, filmed in 2017, a Chinese Fuyao manager awkwardly ends a speech with “Make America Great Again”, and it seems to tie the defeat of both the Democrats and the unions together quite neatly.

The short conversation between the filmmakers and the Obamas packaged with the drama (shot, of course, in a trendy-looking cafe) suggests that Barack doesn’t quite get it. Instead, he talks about finding common ground and seeing other people’s perspective, as if the problem facing the auto workers was a simple misunderstanding. Like Jimmy Carter, Obama and his defenders talk about his presidency as if he was a minor functionary who tried to make things better but couldn’t really do much. Maybe he was.

In some ways, the film seems to identify the exploitation of workers with Chinese-ness. The head of Fuyao is named, in one of those stranger-than-fiction details, Chairman Cao. Viewers see the headquarters of Fuyao’s ersatz Chinese union, with portraits of Communist Party leaders from Mao to Xi on the wall. Much of the conflict comes from Chinese executives expecting the American plant and its workers to implement the same practices as its counterparts in a one-party state without worker protections or civil rights. Even the title, American Factory, is ironic, suggesting the replacement of a hearty American working class lifestyle with foreign-born exploitation.

The image of China as a villain has become a common one in American politics. Obama’s oft-proclaimed foreign policy goal was a “pivot” away from the Middle East and towards East Asia, to confront Chinese territorial ambition. Of course, the Middle East didn’t quite let him pivot as much as he wanted. One of the few coherent ideas Trump ran on, besides the wall, was that China was taking advantage of the US in trade deals. His petty tariff war with the country in office is a fairly transparent way to burnish his populist records before 2020. It’s not that hard to imagine how such a pitch could appeal to one of the Fuyao USA workers or their family members in swing-state Ohio. In the Democratic debates, moderators continually inject questions about the threat of China, despite the topic not seeming to resonate with Democrat voters.

In the popular imagination, China represents the worst excesses of capitalism, ruthless greed and exploitation. This is a safe way of acknowledging the flaws of American capitalism while projecting them onto an exotic other. Of course, it’s not entirely projection: as a state capitalist entity that runs arguably the world’s most critical economy, the Chinese government is a crucial part of international capital. If nothing else, American Factory conveys that they’re perfectly happy working hand-in-hand with exploitative American industries.

And yet, the film also gives us reason to imagine a certain working-class solidarity between the Chinese and American sides of the operation. Despite the language and cultural barriers, we see friendships bloom between American and Chinese workers. Towards the end of the film, a Chinese technician notes that his impression of Americans as being lazy and privileged was entirely wrong. The integration of global capital has meant a truly global proletariat, sometimes existing in close proximity to each other: the question is just how to organize this class. (The UAW, from what the film depicts, doesn’t really seem to target the Chinese workers.)

Perhaps American Factory could be an important, if flawed, entry in an emerging cinema of global capitalism. This new class of films would seek to capture the material conditions of our post-industrial, globalized economy. Wang’s films would be definite entries too, as would the fictional films of the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach. These works struggle, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to adapt the practice of working-class drama to the modern world.

Then again, maybe things haven’t changed that much. The final shots of American Factory (after some captions about automation that seem orthogonal to the point of the film) see groups of workers leaving their shifts, walking towards the camera. No one worker or group are particularly in focus. They pass by the camera, giving the viewer the impression of standing in the way of an indifferent film. It’s a near-direct visual reference to one of the first and most influential documentary shorts, Workers Leaving the Factory by the Lumieres. The cinema of global capitalism may have been with us all along.

A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.

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