Who would have thought having the names of one of the most powerful couple in America attached to a film could be a disservice ?
As American Factory hit Netflix a couple of days ago, almost every bit of its promotion run relied on the Obamas’ involvement. The former presidential couple chose the film as their first pick for their new production company. This choice may surprise; for many, the Obamas are the perfect picture of moderation and safety. How much that fact should be criticized is a topic that is much too complex to delve into here and now. The fact remains that their image affected how most people would perceive Bognar and Reichnart’s new documentary. This would be a consensual story — one that digs just deep enough to be interesting, but not quite enough to shake anyone. We’re all different but let’s try to be nice to one another anyways, yada yada yada. A story we’ve seen a thousand times.
Sometimes, it feels nice to be wrong.
American Factory does not play things safe. As the film starts, it does lean into our expectations for a while. Chinese workers make fun of their American counterparts. Awkward exchanges between the two reveal how uncomfortable they are. Interpreters mediate every conversation. Communication feels forced, even when the workers are smiling. Some sequences lean into the cultural difference theme introduced early on: the New Year’s Eve sequence, or Rob’s Thanksgiving spent showing his new Chinese friends how to use a gun.
But soon enough, the documentary shows its true colours — just when Fuayo and the millionnaires behind it do too. The amount of footage that could put them in real trouble is astonishing. Behind the scenes, they openly admit to firing employees because they are in favour of unionizing. The Vice President of the company semi-privately threatens to kill a Senator for simply bringing up the subject. Another jokes about taping his employees’ mouth shut so they would talk less and work more. A session where a superior teaches the Chinese workers how to deal with American culture is barely disguised xenophobia put to their advantage. They are fully aware that they are being filmed. And they’re certainly not stupid either. What they are is powerful; so powerful that they think nothing can get to them anymore.
What starts out as a story of difference in work ethic in two of the biggest mass producers in the world soon finds its footing as a story of class struggle. All of the conflicts between the Chinese and American workers start way up in the chain. If the first think the latter are lazy, it is not because of their nationality, but because they are used to working twelve hour shifts seven days a week. The film is smart enough to not put the blame on any nationality or custom. Sure, it is weird to hold a company themed New Year’s party, but is it any weirder than earning twelve dollars an hour or being exposed to 200F degrees two hours a day ?
American Factory doesn’t rely on shock value. As the directors say in their interview with the Obamas, they let the subjects tell their own story. Had they tried to influence the narrative in any way, this would have been a classical ‘America is the best’ story. As it exists now, it is a story of worker solidarity, a contemplation of capitalist indoctrination from the very start of one’s life. The ending abruptly leaves the factory and raises the question of automation in the future. It could have been brought up in a better way, but it is inevitably linked to what we witnessed beforehand. When your entire life had to be work, how do you deal with a machine potentially taking your job ? Will we even be there by 2030 to see it ? Neither fully a story of friendship, surface cultural differences or worker unions, American Factory leaves us feeling as much contempt for the present than fear for the future. It may not be the most pleasant watch, but it is an all too needed reflection of the times.
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