What makes the film compelling is that two cultures come together to try to create something new and different. The Chinese company Fuyao Industrial Glass Company takes over the old General Motors plant in Dayton Ohio.
Not at all like the Ron Howard directed film "Gung Ho" which starred Michael Douglas Keaton and was about the conflicts when a Japanese company took over a car plant. (I had written a script "Bases Loaded" about the same topic which was pitched and passed by Ron's company prior to their making the same basic film a year later. But I digress.) Both films deal with the culture clash over the "Asian" workplace versus "The American workplace."
What makes the film "American Factory" so compelling (and tragic) is the irony that is written large over the film but is not addressed. There's an interview with the filmmakers and the Obamas after the film that is worth watching, where they both suggest that the filmmakers "did not take sides" and appeared to tell a story from "both points of view."
That may have been the desired methodology for the film, but it is not what the footage showed.
Chairman Cao (Cho Tak Wong) comes to the U.S., and the filmmakers were allowed to film his meetings with his employees - where the Chairman says one thing ("If they unionize I'll shut down the plant") and the translator says something more diplomatic "Chairman says he would prefer if unionizing was not part of the plant's future." Their American counterparts (not bringing their own translators obviously) were left hearing mixed messages throughout the film.
It reminded me of the time I was hired to write "The Adventures of Little Nemo" and prior my trip to Tokyo, the Producer asked for a brief meeting where I would outline the story. I pitched my story about how Nemo's dream state was part of his subconscious, and that what was happening in real life to him, played out in metaphors during his dreams, and after speaking for five minutes the translator said one sentence. The producer frowned. I looked at the translator. "Did you just tell him what I said?" She shrugged. "Basically." The meeting was short, and my time on the film was shorter.
Translation is everything. There are amazing scenes of the Chinese supervisor telling his employees what he knows about American culture "They're lazy, they don't want to work beyond 8 hours, they talk all the time instead of working" and when he's speaking to the American workers in English, it's all about "finding their enthusiasm for the work!"
The film has the Chinese employers showing "happy, singing children" videos to the American workers who grouse "What the hell am I doing looking at Chinese kids dancing for?" Everything goes downhill - the workers are getting hurt and injured, they're earning minimum wage ($14 and hour and still are) in adverse conditions - 200 degree furnances that are delitirious to all the worker's health.
Then the film travels to China to learn those workers are forced to work 12 hour days, no time off - no overtime, six days a week. It's grueling forced labor, and the workers do their best to seem like it's "getting them ahead."
But the most revealing part, for me, was the billionaire Chairman driving in a car alone, then going to the Imperial Palace in Beijing, lighting incense (for his relatives) and lamenting how he misses the old Beijing, the old China, where he could hear crickets and children laughing in street. He actually says "Am I the problem? I have many factories? Am I responsible for changing the planet?"
(Hint: "YES. YOU ARE.")
Unfortunately no voice from heaven made that case, and the film shows the local union being voted down, and those who helped organize the union vote being fired or pushed out or being forced to do dangerous tasks to encourage them to vote. Then an administrator walks with Chairman Cao and points out that they're firing more workers and replacing them with robots as if that's a valuable thing.
The film ends with the title card that says the factory has earned profit since its opening and the workers are still being paid $14 an hour.
|From Dayton Daily News|
Here's the great irony.
China is a country that adopted a political belief system that was supposed to honor workers. It comes from the actual phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" Marx and Engels weren't writing about how to make more leisure time - they were writing about the horrific conditions in England where children were dying in workhouses, dying in factories, dying to make someone somewhere a profit.
The entire country was built on that ideal - that workers should not be treated as objects, as pieces of glass easily discarded in different colored bins. Yes, Chairman of Fuyao, you are responsible for doing this - but so is everyone who supports the system.
The idea that someone (like me) would have to write about how the Communist Party has failed its workers is beyond ironic. The idea that the bottom line, or profit (whether to line a boss's pockets or the ruling elite) is no less heinous whoever is forcing people to live their lives in quiet desperation.
I think any reasonable person would agree that humans are not on the planet to be exploited. That lives are not expendable or should be dismissed.
Humans come to the planet to experience all the joy that living a life can bring. Hard work comes with rewards - but there's no reason that people should be working 12 hour days, earning no benefits, free health care, a home with amenities or minimum wages so they don't see their children ever. This is insanity. This is the worst that humanity can offer.
I'm not pointing (wagging) a finger at the Chinese government or at Fuyao - just pointing out that one doesn't have to be humiliated into change.
When someone is successful, they can change the paradigm. There are companies that have made its employees equal partners, profit shareholders, and those companies see an increase in every area of its business. From profitability to genuine happiness about working for that company. There's no logical reason why people can't share the wealth, the profit, or the work of making a company grow.
There's no reason that Fuyao couldn't do the same - after all, the idea expressed repeatedly is that "American workers are too lazy" - which is a misrepresentation of history. American workers fought hard to get their rights, died in strikes, they fought hard to get benefits, they fought hard to get health care - and our government, our leaders, business leaders turn their eyes downward to avoid the obvious.
At the end of his life, the Fuyao Chairman will not remember if he met the bottom line - he won't remember any of his wealth. He'll only remember those he gave love to, and those who loved him in return. If work doesn't include the idea of "loving the people who work for you, or that you work with" then it's not work; its a form of slavery.
So while I appreciate the filmmakers thinking they've made a "non political film" and they just "turned on their cameras" - there is a higher power, a spiritual power that made sure that people could see what capitalism, even when run by Communists can do to destroy the human spirit, and destroy the planet while doing so. People think of scenes as "happy coincidences" when the truth is they have guides, teachers, helping them to decide where to point the camera, where to edit a scene, and how to present it. It may feel like a learned skill - but those of us in the film business know there's more to it than that.
It's time for a change.
Gee that sounds familiar.
If there's any silver lining, it was in the court system. According for Forbes, some workers at Fuyao fought back... and won.
Fired ‘American Factory’ Workers Successfully Fought Back by Lisette Voytko
At least some of them pursued cases against Fuyao—and left with settlements. Jill Lamantia, who was featured prominently in the documentary, tells Forbes she settled a claim against Fuyao, filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and received three months of back pay, totaling about $15,000. According to Fuyao, Lamantia was one of three workers who were awarded a total of $120,000, including back pay, from Fuyao through NLRB settlements, according to documents unearthed by the Dayton Daily News that did not identify the workers. All alleged they were fired for supporting the union drive.
Lamantia was relieved, saying, “I didn't know if the case would stick or not stick.” Fuyao, meanwhile, maintains it was not at fault, but that “it elected to settle the charges in 2018 so the Company could move forward with focusing on its business operations.”
But those cases offer a small glimpse into the aftermath of Fuyao’s efforts—and struggles, as documented by filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert—to revive a previously shuttered GM plant. The movie captures an inevitable culture clash between the Chinese company and its American workers, who attempt to form a union amid what certainly seem like trying conditions. In the middle of it all, Fuyao’s chairman, Cao Dewang, says during a visit to the Dayton, Ohio, plant: “If a union comes in, I am shutting down.” Then later, Jeff Liu, Fuyao’s U.S. president, is shown telling Dewang that “a lot” of union supporters were fired.
It’s illegal under U.S. law to threaten or fire employees for trying to form a union. Fuyao claimed the translations of Dewang was incorrect, while Liu called his translation misleading. The filmmakers stand by them. But the film, which is the first acquired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, dropped at a moment when labor’s role in U.S. manufacturing has become a particularly hot, and fraught, topic."
The irony I wanted to point out is that the film highlights the inequity of management and workers, not just China vs. America, but also delves into the "love of money" versus "love of planet." Worth seeing.
And the one country that is in a unique position to focus on helping the "workers of the world to unite" (I've been across China from Shanghai to Beijing, Chengu to Hong Kong) would be a country that founded itself on those principles. It's amazing to me that corporate giant General Motors turns out to be the one company in the film that demonstrated (after hard fought battles) genuine care for their workers (before they cast them into the snow.)
The tragedy of American worker's history is that management has found ways to diminish, demean dissenters, union organizers - (Lobbyist LRI in the film) convincing people that the union would hurt them rather than help them.
The same logic tells us universal health care is a bad thing, or that the climate is not worth fixing. Sure; if you're never planning on coming back to the planet, it wouldn't be. If possible, could those people who are making worker's lives miserable or polluting the planet be asked not to return?
I think I'll light some incense.