The key to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary about a shuttered GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, brought back to life by a Chinese billionaire’s glass company?
“We had to immerse ourselves completely,” Bognar said of the duo’s efforts to earn the trust of the workers at the Fuyao Glass factory, the focus of “American Factory.”
Bognar and Riechert were fully committed to becoming part of this close-knit group, filming the day-to-day operations of the plant for nearly three years and accruing over 1,200 hours of footage.
The results are astounding, as many of the employees there proved to be very candid and open about their experience regarding the unique economic experiment they found themselves taking part in.’
“It became routine for us to be there,” Bognar said during a recent phone interview. “As such, they would talk to us spontaneously and be very open.”
The candid comments from the workers Bognar and Reichert engage with are one of the highlights of the film, with their rawness helping to poignantly drive home the employees’ situation.
After being shuttered for over seven years, the GM plant was reopened by the Chinese corporation run by Cho Tak Wong, with the promise of providing thousands of jobs with competitive wages. The factory would pair Chinese supervisors with American workers, with the expectation that it would begin showing a profit within a year of operation.
As with most best-laid plans, this one hits more than a few snags along the way, not the least of which is the clash of diverse work cultures housed in a single building. The results are confused expectations between co-workers and disappointment and anger among the American employees when everything doesn’t work out as promised and the working conditions are not what they are used to.
“Factory” meticulously chronicles how this situation plays out with a degree of intimacy that’s rare for films of this sort. What starts off as an optimistic enterprise soon devolves into an exercise in frustration for all involved, as differing expectations regarding work, company loyalty and conditions in the factory seem insurmountable.
“The turn happened when the need for profit occurred,” Bognar said. “They had expectations of a profit after one year, and that simply isn’t the model here.”
One of the ways the company addressed this issue was to send a group of American supervisors to China to observe the culture and work habits there in an attempt to make the visitors understand their employers’ intent.
“The trip to China was mindblowing,” Bognar said about one of the most unexpected turns in the process. “I didn’t appreciate their culture until we got there. The level of ambition in China is really amazing. The scale and intensity of the workers was eye-opening. They never slack off. They will work 12-hour shifts, six days a week. Many of them live in villages far away, and they only see their kids once or twice a year. It makes you wonder about the cost of their loyalty to the company.”
Bognar found that the approach towards work regarding company loyalty and hours worked weren’t the only differences that kept popping up.
“With the Chinese, there’s a level of directness,” he said. “There, when a worker is asked to do something, they simply do it. In America, if you do the same thing, they want to know why you want it done and for what reason.”
As tensions rose between the two groups and a between the American employees and management, calls to form a union arose, an event that Cho stated would result in the closing of the factory.
Amid it all, Bognar said Cho never asked him and his co-diretor to stop filming.
“He let us continue,” Bognar said. “Here is a man who has written his own autobiography that recounts not just his successes but his loses and mistakes as well. He understands the need for conflict in a story and the power of a narrative. He never asked us to stop, and I thought that was amazing and brave.”
In the end, “American Factory” offers up no easy answers to the complex problems it examines. Benefits and drawbacks are evident in each culture’s approach to work, but the one thing that is crystal clear is that in no matter what system is used, the workers are the ones who come out on the losing end.
“I hope the film asks the questions, ‘Is this the way things should be?’ ‘Is this sustainable?’” Bognar said. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the impossible. I’ve seen the Berlin Wall fall. And I know we need a global conversation on the future of work and that working people have to be at the table.”
The film was released Aug. 21 on Netflix. Champaign’s Art Theater is hosting a free screening at 7 p.m. Sept. 11.