Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert Punch In with 'American Factory,' Award-Winning Doc on Dicey Chinese-U.S. Industrial Experiment
Barack and Michelle Obama's production company gets behind film about Chinese auto glass maker's adventure in Ohio
Months before the new documentary American Factory reached a wide audience, directors Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert had already accomplished a stunning trifecta: a major award at Sundance, followed by a Netflix distribution deal, followed by news that Barack and Michelle Obama were putting their imprimatur on the film.
For the filmmakers it may be hard to say which development came as the biggest surprise.
"We were like so shocked," Reichert says of the directing honor she and Bognar won at Sundance. "We were not expecting that at all."
It was really a huge cultural clash.
After Netflix acquired the film (with an offer reported to be in the neighborhood of $3 million), the Obamas' Higher Ground Productions became attached to American Factory, the former president and first lady choosing it as the first title in their overall production deal with Netflix.
"We were kind of shocked when that happened," Reichert tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "It's super exciting... You always hear that President Obama sees everything from like 2,000 feet up. He sees the big picture in a lot of ways. And that's a little bit what we were trying to do [with the film]."
American Factory, in a sense, picks up where Bognar and Reichert's Oscar-nominated documentary The Last Truck left off. In that 2009 film, the Dayton, Ohio-based filmmakers chronicled the closing of a local GM plant, a devastating event for the town. As the years passed, the empty factory deteriorated.
"It had been a blight, this really sad place that a lot of people had to drive by everyday," Reichert recalls. "Raccoons living in there, rusting, homeless people living in there. I mean it was really sad. But then the news hit that somebody is going to start manufacturing again. Somebody bought the plant."
That somebody was "Chairman Cao" Dewang, a billionaire entrepreneur who runs Fuyao, a company that controls 70-percent of the lucrative auto glass market. Fuyao committed more than $200 million to turn the old GM facility into a manufacturing plant employing hundreds of Americans, along with hundreds more workers brought in from China.
"The level of optimism and hope was infectious. I can't tell you how iconic that dead factory was... like the single most iconic example of how 'hard times have come to our town,'" Bognar notes. "Because it's this huge wound, like this place where generations had worked - 6,000 people worked there at one point. Middle class jobs, 6,000 of them, for a long time. And so the hope that came back into that factory was so powerful."
The filmmakers gained remarkable access to all levels of management and the factory floor to tell the story of Fuyao's endeavor, a kind of cross-cultural experiment with possibilities of success or miserable failure.
"We were really trying to do something nuanced, where you had to live in the shoes of everybody, from the chairman who's invested in America as a billionaire to the American management that's so excited about this, to the factory floor workers - whether they're Chinese or American - grappling with 'what are we doing and how are we going to pull it off?'" Bognar comments. "We wanted you to feel everyone's journey."
There were earnest attempts at cultural understanding, at least in the beginning. The film contains many telling and often-amusing scenes, including one where a Chinese manager briefs Chinese workers on the American way of life.
"America is a place to let your personality run free," the manager observes. "As long as you're not doing anything illegal, you're free to follow your heart."
The American workers knew how to make trucks, but making auto glass involved a steep learning curve. Skilled Chinese workers trained them, under the watchful eye of Chinese managers. It wasn't long before dissatisfaction crept in.
"They have fat fingers," one Chinese manager notes of American personnel. "We keep training them over and over."
Some of the American workers had made upwards of $30 an hour at the GM plant, but had to settle for $12 an hour at Fuyao. They were initially thrilled to have any kind of paying job with good benefits, but concerns soon arose over safety on the factory floor, terribly hot temperatures inside the plant and other matters.
"The conditions are not favorable," one American worker says in a deflated tone. "Doing the same thing over and over again, that wears on you - body and mind... You think about whether you have the stamina and the will to do this type of job."
There was a cultural disconnect, the filmmakers observe, over training methods and expectations.
"The Chinese way of teaching is not like the way you and I learned. We learned in school, you learn step 1, you learn step 2, you learn step 3, you learn step 4 and you go over it again. You watch it being done, then you get to practice it being done. That's how we learn. They do not learn that way," Reichert states. "It's culturally different. [Their way], you watch somebody do it. It's a little bit more of an apprenticeship thing... They leave and you're supposed to do it. And the Americans are like, 'I didn't get all the details there. What do I do?' And that also felt kind of insulting to the Americans. The Americans often felt really pissed off and insulted by Chinese." Bognar adds, "Disrespected."
But Bognar insists, "We have to be careful not to look at this phenomenon from our Midwestern American point of view. And we worked really hard in the film to sort of go into the sky and look down on both sides. From the [Chinese] point of view, what they could say legitimately is like, 'The way we teach is just more empowering because we're throwing it on you. You're going to be thrown in the water and you've got to swim!' And that's a better way to learn. And come on, you can do it - we did it! Why can't you did it?' [But] they weren't saying this to the Americans, they weren't giving the rationale... It's important for us to not judge that style. We want you to feel both points of view and then grapple with the gulf, the gap between the points of view."
Another point of tension in the workplace was the prospect of American workers unionizing under the UAW banner. Chinese management adamantly opposed that.
"We don't want to see the union developing here," Chairman Cao tells his associates. "If a union comes in, I'm shutting down. They keep interfering with my production."
It's ironic in the extreme that a company founded in China, a nation with a form of government based ostensibly on Maoist/Leninist, not to mention Marxist, principles, would be so blatantly anti-union.
"It's supposed to be a worker-owned, worker-run country," Reichert concurs. "I mean that's the whole idea of, I guess you'd say, communism."
Reichert and Bognar say they agreed to do the documentary on the condition they retain full editorial control and that it be independently-financed. But it wouldn't have happened, at least not in the form American Factory ultimately took, without Chairman Cao's endorsement.
"When the chairman says do something everyone does it. He was intrigued [about the film idea]. And he wanted to have a record of [the Fuyao America endeavor]," Bognar comments. "And he knew we were independents - we were not working for the company. And so once he said, 'Let's do it,' everyone got on board."
But it's possible he's coming to regret that decision. Bloomberg Law reports an unfair labor practice charge against Fuyao was filed with the National Labor Relations Board a day after American Factory debuted on Netflix. Under a section labeled "Basis of the Charge," the complaint alleges "the Employer has interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees in the exercise of rights protected by Section 7 of the [National Labor Relations] Act by threatening to retaliate against employees if they joined or supported a union."
Chairman Cao's statements in the film disapproving of unionization efforts could potentially be entered into evidence as part of the complaint, the report suggests. The film may also factor in a lawsuit against Fuyao and Chairman Cao filed by David Burrows, former vice-president of Fuyao Glass America who was fired after the American operation failed to deliver expected profits. He was replaced by a Chinese-born manager. Burrows alleges breach of contract and discrimination; his suit may draw on comments in American Factory in which Chairman Cao disparages American workers as inefficient.
“The discriminatory comments made by Chinese executives will definitely have an impact on Mr. Burrows’ claims,” Burrows' attorney, Anne Frayne, told Bloomberg Law.
I spoke with Bognar and Reichert in early August at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival, which screened a number of Reichert's films, including American Factory. I asked them about the Obamas endorsing their documentary effort.
"It's very meaningful to us that they believe in the film," Bognar told me. "We're in a time where everything is so polarized and one of the missions of [the Obamas'] Higher Ground Productions is to build bridges between people so that conversations can happen again between people that maybe don't even talk to each other anymore. And one thing we try to do with the film is create this big space where you can have opposing points of view - people who definitely don't agree with each other within the movie - who can have conversations where all sides are heard and treated with respect."
At that point in early August, the filmmakers were not expecting the Obamas to devote significant time promoting the film.
"They'll probably do social media stuff," Reichert predicted at the time. But the Obamas have gone further - appearing in a video with the directors that was clearly filmed after the Traverse City Film Festival. In it Reichert asks the president and first lady why they picked their film to support.
"You let people tell their own story," Michelle Obama notes. "Those first scenes of those folks on the [factory] floor in their uniforms, that was my background, that was my father."
"I hope it sparks curiosity," President Obama comments, adding, "A good story is a good story. If it's a documentary like yours, or if it's a scripted story that helps people understand something they didn't understand before, we want to see if we can give voice to that."
Bognar echoes that idea in the video, observing, "We want to give voice to people who don't appear on-screen. Working people, their stories, their struggles, their hopes."
The film's critical reception, along with the Obamas' support, promises to make American Factory a strong contender once awards seasons kicks into high gear. The film is having an impact on viewers of all kinds, including some steeped in issues of American labor and business.
"Starting at Sundance we've had people who teach at MBA business schools, and they say 'I want to show this to all my business school students,' because they felt like they would learn a lot." Bognar tells me. "And then we've had union officials say they want to show it to their union members."
Reichert adds, "And we've had employment lawyers, some who are union side and some who are the employers' side, and they've all said, 'We have to show this.'"
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.