AMERICAN FACTORY is a chilling and provocative documentary, perfectly timed for our times. It comes against a backdrop of a US-China trade war; suspicion of anyone who looks remotely Asian sneezing in earshot; and Andrew Yang running for President solely on the issue of the coming replacement of blue-collar workers with Advanced Robotics and white collar workers with AI and machine learning. More generally, we are living in a time where blue collar workers around the world are expressing their anger that they gained nothing from decades of globalisation other than lost jobs, stagnant real wages, and the contempt of the political parties that were supposed to be representing them. All of these issues and more are explored in this fascinating documentary - brought to us by husband and wife directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, and the Obama's production company. The ironies abound in that. After all, Obama was a so-to-say left-wing president but he took globalisation for granted and did nothing to reverse the damage it inflicted on blue-collar workers. And it becomes rapidly clear that this "American" factory is nothing of the sort - it's Chinese through and through.
As the movie opens, a Chinese global glass company called Fuyao re-opens a former General Motors assembly plant in Ohio. The workers are happy. When GM closed during the Global Financial Crisis they lost their jobs, homes and dignity. But the venture is a disappointment all around. The Chinese are frustrated with the US workers apparent lack of work ethic and their constant need for praise. They seem to either be ignorant of, or have contempt for, local health and safety regulations. And they take every action necessary to prevent the workers from unionising - from sacking the agitators, to hiring a lobbying company to persuade them to vote against unionising. Indeed the workers are dispensable: the most chilling final scene is one of advanced robotics replacing actual people.
On the other side of the coin, the American workers are similarly disappointed. They refuse to work the long hours and compromise their safety, or indeed environmental standards. They want to understand the reasons for being asked to do something, rather than just following an order blindly. And they want to be in a culture where good work is rewarded - not just with a living wage, but also with simple thanks.
This culture clash speaks to a deeper colonial racism, and the fact is that this is the first time in a long time when white people are being dominated by non-whites*. All the racism that the European and North Americans expressed toward other races - all the economic exploitation - is now working in reverse. So we are shocked to hear a Chinese manager say that American workers are like donkeys, and need to be placated to avoid them kicking - or that the Chinese managers have to benevolently steer the American workers because the Chinese are clearly wiser. But this is no different to how American or European managers would've viewed Mexican or Indian workers in colonial times (and maybe not that different to how they view them today.)
I guess the real shock of this film for many viewers is that it's a really tangible example of how America is no longer the world's foremost economic power. And adjusting to being condescended to is a rather painful process for all involved. But frankly, I found our new robot overlords far more chilling than the Chinese.
AMERICAN FACTORY has a running time of 110 minutes. The movie played Sundance where it won the Documentary Director award, Tribeca and Sheffield DocFest 2019. It is available to watch on Netflix. *I'm thinking the Muslim conquest of Spain was the last time?