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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!

Jiaxing Weng-Zhang
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Reflection on documentary American Factory:

Deborah, after reading your review, I finally watched the documentary from the beginning to the end (I started a few times). You have summarized it so well. And I love the activities you have for your students (I use Flipgrid a lot also).  Very thought-provoking and creative.  I am learning from you and will have my students do similar assignments for my film review. 

The documentary shares the story of how Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company, is trying to establish its global presence in the U.S. I became very interested in knowing more about the chairman of the company, Mr. Cao Dewang and also how the documentary was made. I read interviews with Mr. Cao in Chinese and in English and also read an interview with the directors of the documentary.  Please see the links below for your reference.

Here is what I found out about Mr. Cao:

Mr. Cao was born to a rich family in 1946 but was forced to quit studying at 14 due to changes in family situation.  He did many jobs to survive.  In 1984, at age 38 he was able to take over a run-down glass factory and turned a profit within 2 years.  Once he went into a taxi with a hiking stick and the taxi driver told him to be very careful not to break the windshield since it was very expensive and was only available through import, this small incident made him see the opportunity in manufacturing glass for cars. He grasped the opportunity, through investment in research and automation,  Fuyao became the last automobile glass manufacturer in China and second in the world.  In 2003, Fuyao Glass Industry Group Co Ltd became the first Chinese company to win its case against the dumping ruling of the US Department of Commerce (DOC).  And in 2016 was when he starts to invest in the U.S. and starting to take the company global.

He is a devoted buddist, philanthropist and also spends at least 1 to 2 hours reading on a daily basis. 


Here is what I like the most of from the interview of the directors of the documentary: 

The interviewer Alissa Wilkinson sums it up really well - “So much of American Factory explores how our culture affects what we think we should get out of a job — what we’re looking for in our work. Everyone wants to get paid, of course. But what the Americans in the film are asking for from the experience is different from what the Chinese are looking for. It depends on what they’ve been conditioned to expect.”

For example, one of the Chinese engineers did not unite with his family till working for two years in the US since his task is to make sure the investment in the US becomes successful even if that means sacrificing his personal time with his family.  And a American worker was upset because he did not even get a pat on the back when he did a good job.  Even though it is changing, with a 1.3 billion population,  education through encouragement is just not the norm in China as everyone is trying to do their best to out beat their competitors.  

I also love the fact that the directors have the cultural sensitivity to realize the importance of collaborating with two Chinese directors to tell the story from the Chinese workers’ perspectives.  

Megan Hsiao
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Response to American Factory

Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful review on American Factory. I haven’t gotten a chance to see this film but after reading your reviews, I am planning to watch it before school starts and use it in class this year. I am very interested to have students discuss the cultural differences in work ethics/attitudes and lifestyles between the Chinese and American workers. Based on my own experience working with American co-workers, I find it true that how my American colleagues value vacation time whereas working overtime seems to be very normal in East Asian society. I believe this film will be a good resource for the students to learn Chinese culture from a different perspective. 

Alma Ochoa
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American Factory Reviews

I’m not one for watching movies but your reviews have really peaked my interest.  This is definitely a movie that I will take the time to watch.  It sounds like this movie is a great way to  learn about Chinese culture and their perspectives and the value they place on work ethic.  I think it’s important to compare and contrast different cultures’ views and perspectives.  I totally agree with Jiaxing we have all been conditioned on what to expect.  Depending on what those experiences have been determines our views of others, how we think about them and how we treat them.  I personally don’t think that ones’ expectations are right or wrong.  Again it goes back to what we have been conditioned to expect.  In the end I think it all has to do with what one personally values and want ones to accomplish.  That really should determine our actions.  People always have a reason for doing what they do.  Some may not be able to verbalize it but there is always a reason behind ones actions.  I think it would be great for students to discuss those differences as well as think about the pros and cons of being a workaholic and being too casual about ones job.  Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and great ideas.