Dayton, Ohio, is known as the birthplace of Orville Wright, and is also home to the National Museum of the US Airforce. Besides aviation, it is also a town steeped in manufacturing. But in 2008, gripped by the recession, the GM plant on the outskirts of the city was shuttered. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert recorded this gloomy event in their Academy Award nominated film “The Last Truck: the Closing of a GM Plant”. The loss of over 2,400 mostly blue-collar, jobs had ripple effects throughout the community, which struggled to recover.
Less than a decade later, in 2014, when Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, selected the abandoned carcass of the former GM plant as the site for Fuyao Glass America, a company dedicated to making automotive glass, excitement was in the air. Fuyao was seen as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the GM factory. This new prospect was met with eagerness and anticipation by the locals. And so begins “American Factory”, the latest film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, which earned the Directing Award for US Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
After concluding “The Last Truck”, the filmmakers never expected to return to the scene of their earlier film, but the experience was uplifting. “We never thought we'd go back in there again,” Reichert acknowledges, “It was such a sad situation. But going back was actually super exciting. A lot of GM workers wanted to get back in that plant. It had been such a huge part of their life, such a good part of their life, such a family part of their life. They couldn't wait to get back in there. And we felt like some of them did: ‘Oh, look, there's the post numbers, that's where we used to be.’ So it was actually really exciting.”
Bognar recalls, “It was thrilling, and it was so visual. We try to make documentaries that are cinematic, and we just loved the intense visual nature of all these reflective surfaces, of the glass itself, of the lighting, which was not coming from above, it was all side lighting, so everyone looked like they were bathed in these glowing movie lights. It's like movie lights everywhere.”
The film is a gripping story of the birth of a new company in the shell of an old one, but the initial enthusiasm is soon beset by language barriers, cultural differences, manufacturing problems, safety standard violations, and Chinese managerial styles clashing with US workplace ethics and practices.
As Bognar recounts, “The Last Truck” is fairly well known in Dayton, Ohio, where we live, and where the factory's based. So when people [at Fuyao] started talking about the desire to document this new factory coming into the very same place where the old factory had been, our names came up. And we started having conversations about what would it mean to document the birth of this factory. We had no idea how long it would take to film or what the story would be, other than we had an instinct that it would be momentous. But we said to the company that we would do it only if we owned it and had editorial control. We took no money from the company, but the company would have to give us real access to the factory floor, to meetings, to everything, because we wanted to tell it as deeply and richly as we could. And not that many companies would do that.”
With the head of the company, Chairman Cao, granting such unfettered access, filming began. “It speaks to the chairman's sense of adventure,” Bognar continues, “that he said ‘let's try it.’ And the chairman is a maverick. He's had a long, very, very successful career. He's a multi-billionaire, one of the most successful business people in China. He was willing to go on this adventure. He wasn't cautious about it.”
But Bognar stresses, “It's one thing to gain access, and it's a different thing to maintain access, and it's important to note the distinction. Now, in the early days, of course it was easy to say yes because there was so much goodwill and excitement going in all directions. It was super exciting to be there. When the pressure started coming down on people, when things started getting harder, that's when the company really had to say to themselves, ‘Are we sure we want a camera crew walking around documenting everything?’ And to their credit, they never kicked us out.”
Reichert clarifies, “I would put it another way too: it's one thing to get access; it's another thing to get trust. And getting trust in this situation was really tricky.
Part of it is just that you show up. Steve and I, and our crew, were just there a lot. We were there on the floor, in the white-collar areas, and we got to know the guards all really well. And we did a lot of interviewing of people, sit-down interviews -- which we didn't use any of them in the film except for voiceover – and roaming around talking to workers on the floor.”
“And the way we looked upon it is, everyone is going through something really hard,” Reichert continues, “whether you're the owner, who is trying to do this amazing feat of creating this plant that has to go into profits and that has to satisfy its investors; whether it's management, who have to manage Chinese folks and blue-collar Americans working side by side; or whether it's the workers, who have a very hard job and are learning something new and are dealing with a Chinese management style that they're just really not used to.”
“There was a certain amount of having to sort of navigate these different communities, within the plant. One way in which we realized that we had to be careful is that the plant is huge, and you're walking around with your tripod and your camera and your camera bag and all your stuff. You're walking miles on concrete floor. And sometimes a management person would come zooming by on their golf cart and would say, ‘Hey, come on, get in. I'll take you wherever you're going.’ But we realized we were zooming past the workers, whose stories we were also trying to capture, and that would make them feel that ‘Oh, they're part of management,’ so we had to stop doing that. We had to continue just to walk around. We had to sort of navigate this upstairs/downstairs kind of link to the film. You have the blue collar, the white collar, the Chinese, the Americans on both sides.”
Surprisingly, upper level management is not shielded by a façade of publicists and or communications specialists. “There were no PR folks shadowing the Chairman” Bognar confirms. “The Chairman walks around that factory with his core team, but they're like engineers and business development folks, not communications folks.”
The narrative shifts as the excitement for the new enterprise start to fade - the realities of the harsh working conditions start to become apparent, management comes under increasing pressure to deliver a profit, and strains between the Chinese and American workers begin to surface.
Reichert admits, “We actually did think at first, that this is going to be a wonderful film about cultural differences, Chinese folks coming to Dayton and impacting it, Chinese folks being far away from their families, and Chinese and American blue-collar people interacting.”
“When we started making the film,” Bognar adds, “we tried to really suspend our preconceptions. It's just not a good idea to go into a world or an environment with a sense of what the story is, because then you're going to miss other stuff. In the last few days, we’ve been celebrating the life of D.A. Pennebaker, who was to Julia and I, a great inspiration, in his openness and his belief in immersive cinema. If you go into an environment with your eyes and your heart and your ears open, and you immerse, the story will just come to you, and you'll find it. You don't direct it; you flow with it.”
When the honeymoon phase at the factory wanes, a unionization battle starts brewing and Chinese management, taken aback, brings in a union busting labor relations consultancy firm. The filmmakers had access to very sensitive information in the midst of this struggle.
Bognar emphasizes, “One thing we were trying to be very mindful of is to not reveal something that someone said to us that would change the course of events. The documentarian should never become part of the story if it can be avoided. And when we started realizing we were hearing management say things to each other or workers say things to each other that they other folks would love to hear. And we had to be super careful to not accidentally reveal certain information.”
“In the early months and even the first few year of filming,” he continues, “ we were chasing various story threads, but we didn't really know where things were going. The pressure started building on people gradually. It wasn't like a switch; as the plant was not making a profit, as expectations were not being met, as cultural differences started to be felt more acutely, that's when tensions started to rise.”
The filmmakers shot over 1,200 hours of footage over a period of three years.
“We lived 25 minutes away from that factory, so going there was very easy.” Bognar declares. “I can say safely we went to that factory hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times. And there were five main camera people plus additional camera people.”
Reichert adds, “We ramped up gradually. Maybe the first six months we were there once a week or less. But then it got to be almost, not quite every day, but sometimes nearly every day that we were there.”
With no knowledge of Mandarin, the language barrier that existed at the Fuyao factory also extended to the filmmaking crew, who filmed many scenes without knowing what was being discussed. It was a year into filming before two Chinese documentarians, Mijie Li and Yiqian Zhang, joined the production team.
“We filmed a ton of stuff, all in Chinese, that we had no idea what it meant. And the translations started coming in much later” Reichert explains.
“Some of the scenes in the film we didn't have translated until the summer of 2018.” Bognar continues, “It had been filmed like a year or maybe even two years earlier. It took a while to build a translation team: everything in the film was translated at least twice, if not three times, and then crosschecked, because obviously we wanted to get it right. When we finally got the translations back, some scenes we thought would be a boring meeting about something or other, but then we'd read the translations and we're like, ‘Oh, my lord, they said that? They were talking about that?’ And it was really surprising.”
Wading through such extensive footage, part of which was in Mandarin, was no easy task. “We're lucky we had a brilliant editor named Lindsay Utz,” Bognar admits. “She was the powerhouse. She took 1200 hours of rough footage, and in eighteen months, cut this feature film. It was remarkable. I learned a lot from our editor, about how little you need to evoke a moment or convey information. I thought I knew this, but she took me to a new level of how a few ‘brushstrokes’ of dialogue and image can give you a world, can suggest a deep character, and you don't need a lot of exposition. And I thought I knew that, being a veteran already. But she taught me even more about how just less is more, and you can really convey a lot.”
“One of the things that she said from the beginning,” Reichert adds, “even though you shot hours and hours of sit-down, beautifully lit, nice-looking interviews with workers, with management, with the Chairman, let's try to tell this story only with vérité scenes, where things are happening right in front of the camera. Let's just use the interviews for voiceover.”
Despite the sad arc to the storyline, the film is filled a lot of humorous moments - the rigid stereotypes held by the Chinese about Americans inject much needed hilarity in the documentary.
Bognar concurs, “We believe in the power of humor to loosen up attitudes, and we felt like the movie should have a gentle poking of fun at both Americans and Chinese, and that that would be fine. And so American audiences have laughed harder than anyone at that scene where Andrew Ma leads the cultural presentation, about what Americans are like, their big cars, their sloppy dress.”
Working on the film for such a long duration really tested the directors. Reichert explains, “The biggest challenge was having enough energy to just face it every single day, as in keeping your mind focused on it. It became a total obsession. Who should we be talking to? What meetings should we be at? What happened at the last meeting we missed, how can we find out? It was like a daily obsession for month after month after month. It changed our lives. We stopped talking to our family, we stopped seeing friends.”
“Julia and I are old enough now to know that when you make this kind of film,” Bognar adds, “when you dive into this kind of story, it's going to really disrupt your lives. It's going to mess up your health, it's going to damage friendships, and it did all that. And yet we also really wanted to chase a very big story, and the demands of it were huge. It was a very intense four years. We're very grateful that it turned out as well as it is. But we need to recover from this film. It was really overwhelming.”
Ultimately, the differences between the Fuyao employees stem not so much from what passports they hold, but from their position in the organizational chart. The divide is not so much a cultural one, but one of hierarchy - and whether a worker can easily be replaced by a machine or not. The documentary makes a very interesting coda to Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”, which was released three decades ago, when no one would have predicted much Chinese money and investments would pour into America. And certainly no one would have predicted that the best capitalists in the world would be Communists, fighting unionization tooth and nail. Karl Marx is spinning in his grave.
“It is amazing how agrarian, poor China has transformed the world.” Bognar admits. “And one thing we hope to do with the film is to not look at that through a lens of American anxiety about it, through this Midwestern unease, because hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in China. It's not all been a bed of roses, and environmentally it has often been really, really bad. We tried to make a film that has a lot of nuance and a lot of complexity and that leaves us all wanting to grapple with the fate of these huge tectonic plates shifting in global history right now. The last thirty years, it's been seismic, and how it will impact working people around the world? We're interested not so much in the lives of the big bosses, but the working person who's trying to see their kids and feed their kids, whether they're Chinese or Americans. That was one of our main goals with the film.”
Reichert points out, “We used to say, ‘All our jobs are leaving and going to China’ but now a few decades later, Chinese employers are coming back here. There are probably close to 200,000 people in America, who work in Chinese factories and businesses. There's a lot of that in South and in the Midwest; there are dozens and dozens of plants. But what we hope you see in the film is that globally, the voice of workers is getting smaller and smaller, along with wages getting stagnant, working conditions very tough, more and more expected out of workers. We're hoping the film poses the questions: What's going to happen? How are we going to get the workers' voice back in the mix? What is the future of work?”
American Factory begins streaming on Netflix on August 21st.
Originally printed in Documentary — August 2019