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American Factory

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Deborah Johnston
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American Factory

American Factory was produced in 2019 as a critical commentary on Chinese foreign investment in the United States.  The film, the first produced by Higher Ground Productions, the company begun by the Obamas, won an Academy Award in 2020 for Best Documentary feature and is distributed by Netflix.   The movie takes place in Dayton, Ohio at a factory that had been closed by GM two years earlier, and taken over by Fuyao, a car windshield glass production facility. The company hires local American workers, and initially American supervisors, but also brings in a large number of Chinese workers and Chinese managerial staff.  As the documentary ensues, it is apparent that there are numerous cultural tensions since Fuyao expects Chinese labor practices with their American employees.  The Chinese employees feel that their American counter-parts are soft—working shorter hours, with more breaks and more time off.  The American workers are critical of the safety and environmental practices, as well as angry that they are not entitled to union representation.  There are scenes within the movie of the Chinese workers adapting to life in Ohio – gun practice on the farm, Thanksgiving, and missing their families back home.  A reciprocal trip to China for some of the American managerial staff ends in having the Americans both impressed by the local work ethic and certain that those practices cannot be replicated back home.  The Americans in the meetings are out-dressed (they show up in baseball caps and polo shirts—whereas their counterparts are in suits) and seemingly appear ignorant of Chinese culture and business acumen.  There is lots to think about in this film… the cultural clash is a piece of the film, but also there is a commentary on work ethic and ethical and environmental business practices.   I think it would be a rich discussion for students to explore the ways in which the documentary film style used allows viewers to make up their own minds about the message that the film producers are trying to show.  Is this a pro-China film? A pro-labor film?  What commentary is it making on globalization and on China’s place in the world economy.  I would like students to respond to the film in one of four ways:  take a 2-3 minute clip and analyze it with a 3 minute FlipGrid response; take a brief scene from the movie and rewrite it so that it shows more cultural sensitivity; create a 300 word dialogue between two of the people in the film—one Chinese and one American; or write a letter from Fuyao to GM asking for advice on how to deal with American workers.  I highly recommend this movie if you have not yet seen it!