The Fuyao Glass America plant, formerly a General Motors factory, in Moraine, Ohio during a 2016 primaries event Photo: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File
entertainment

Obamas' first film charts life in U.S. factory under Chinese bosses

22 Comments
By Andrew MARSZAL

"They refer to us as the foreigners," says a downbeat employee at the Ohio car glass factory where hundreds of Chinese laborers have come to work, far from their wives, children and homeland.

But the worker in question is American, not Chinese, and is finding life very different under new management after billionaire "Chairman Cao" swept into town to reopen the shuttered, iconic former General Motors factory in 2014.

This is "reverse globalization," say Oscar-nominated directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who filmed the GM plant's closure in 2008 and returned to chronicle its reopening by Fuyao corporation for the documentary "American Factory."

The film charts a Midwestern rust belt community's journey from optimism at the giant plant's reopening -- bringing back vital jobs -- toward creeping anger and disillusionment as the Chinese management imposes its strict, exhausting demands on workers and sacks those who don't comply.

The all-access look at how both American and Chinese workers, from blue-collar to management, had their lives transformed by powerful global economic forces caught the eyes of none other than Barack and Michelle Obama.

The former first couple acquired "American Factory" at January's Sundance Festival, and will release it on Netflix and in select theaters from Aug 21 as the first offering from their Higher Ground Productions company.

"Mrs Obama said it resonated with her because her father had done an intense, hardworking job for decades just to provide for his family, and she felt the Midwesterness of the film in what she saw on screen," Bognar told AFP.

"She felt her own family in the film, and I think the President felt there was a certain amount of policy issues and big broad globalization" themes in the documentary, added Reichert.

The battle for economic supremacy between the U.S. and a rising China is perhaps the defining geopolitical story of the 21st century.

The filmmakers set out to understand what that rivalry looks like on a human level, and were granted extraordinary access by Fuyao founder and chairman Cao Dewang, who was as interested in bridging the cultural divide and showcasing Chinese capitalism as making a profit.

"The chairman's a maverick -- he's very much his own person, an independent self-made business guy," said Bognar.

"He'd seen our earlier film and liked it, and so he took a chance on us," he added, referring to 2009's "The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant."

In the new documentary's early scenes, genuine attempts by the U.S. and Chinese workers to bond with their new colleagues, including fishing and shooting lessons and shared Thanksgiving dinners, appear to bear some fruit.

But as the new Chinese owners become alarmed by heavy financial losses, they fire the American middle managers and increasingly invoke their Chinese replacements' sense of nationalistic pride to spur harder work, leaving the workforce ever-more divided.

Despite promises, wages remain frozen far below those of the GM era, while workers' attempts to unionize and confront slipping safety standards are aggressively shut down from above.

"The cultural chasm was wider than people anticipated," said Bognar, noting that the new Chinese owners felt equally baffled and let down by the attitudes of U.S. workers.

"To their credit, as the pressure mounted they did not kick us out, they certainly could have kicked us out at any point," he added.

While the factory in Moraine, Ohio is of symbolic significance due to its size and legacy, it is not unique -- Chinese-owned factories are now abundant across the American South and Midwest.

Like Fuyao, many are housed in the same buildings formerly shut down by American bosses who shipped jobs overseas to Mexico and elsewhere.

"You're getting a slice of what globalization really looks like on a human level," said Reichert, adding: "I think the film leaves you with a sense of unease."

Nobody has tapped into that disquiet better than President Donald Trump, whose 2016 victory was built on successes in Ohio and nearby Michigan and Wisconsin.

For Ohio-based Reichert and Bognar, who have spent years interviewing blue-collar workers, that result was no surprise.

"We saw that coming, being in Ohio -- the enthusiasm, the yard signs," said Reichert. "Hillary Clinton was not well liked."

Trump promised the region's laid-off workers they would get back their jobs. Earlier this year, another enormous GM factory in nearby Lordstown, Ohio became the latest to close.

But in a strange quirk, even as Chinese investment in the US has plummeted by over 80 percent under Trump's tariff war, jobs like those provided by Fuyao have become an important lifeline.

© 2019 AFP

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

22 Comments
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Obamas' first Netflix film charts life in U.S. factory under Chinese bosses

Huh? So they bought the rights to the film and sold them to Netflix. So their interest in this was not just about the subject matter, but making money right?

2 ( +8 / -6 )

Sounds like the Chinese version of the film "Gung Ho".

13 ( +13 / -0 )

Sounds like the Chinese version of the film "Gung Ho".

Exactly what I was thinking, except, as a documentary rather than a comedy. It might be interesting to watch both back to back.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Under Obama and other sell out dems and neo cons, this would of been the future of the US. Japan was doing the same thing in the 90s. Unbelievable how this could happen, all the while many are complaining of a trade war.

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

Know a long term JP salariman in Tokyo who just changed companies and was oddly given a weird nickname like "Donny" on his meishi. I assume his new company is Chinese or Taiwanese owned if they do that. However work hours seem better with the same pay.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

To be fair, the factory was closed and the people were out of work... surely this is better than signing on the dole? Yes, the working practices may be alien to people used to getting their own way and such, but sadly that's the way of the world...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Yubaru

Huh? So they bought the rights to the film and sold them to Netflix. So their interest in this was not just about the subject matter, but making money right?

I seriously doubt the Obama's are in need of making any money off a film. They're set for life.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I seriously doubt the Obama's are in need of making any money off a film. They're set for life

Which is what makes it even more perplexing and undignified. Former presidents probably shouldn't be cashing in on movies about America's decline.

-1 ( +6 / -7 )

Former presidents probably shouldn't be cashing in on movies about America's decline.

Why not?

-1 ( +5 / -6 )

Why not?

He had two terms to fundamentally reverse the decline. Whether it was reasonable to expect him to succeed or not, this is why many voted for him. If the film were a mea culpa for three decades of neoliberal economic policy that hollowed out the American middle class then it would be forgivable, but having watched the trailer it just seems like a collection of human interest stories to pull on our heart strings and acclimatise people to the new normal.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

He had two terms to fundamentally reverse the decline.

He did. He got handed a country in a recession, and left it WAY better off than when he got it. Exponentially better.

As someone who knows how to do the job successfully, I'm happy to listen to any thoughts he has on someone who is doing a piss poor job of it.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

He got handed a country in a recession, and left it WAY better off than when he got it. 

The recession was just a symptom of a much larger problem that Obama was not prepared to acknowledge or deal with. It's been the Washington concensus on free trade for over 30 years. Also, given how much money ended up being pumped into the markets, it's likely that any President would have successfully navigated the recession.

As someone who knows how to do the job successfully, I'm happy to listen to any thoughts he has

Remember, Obama was the one aggressively pushing deals like the TPP which would have further hollowed out the middle class and sold out American workers. You don't even need to listen to Trump on this. People in both parties harshly criticised Obama as well as many experts like Joseph Stiglitz (leftwing nobel prize winning economist). This is one area of the Obama legacy that he cannot be proud of and might explain why he now wants to defend himself by producing movies about it.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

"Like Fuyao, many are housed in the same buildings formerly shut down by American bosses who shipped jobs overseas to Mexico and elsewhere."

Sloppy writing. Mexico is not 'overseas'.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Ironically, it's American owners who close factories in America to move production to places like China, while a Chinese owner reopens the factory in America

Huh? So they bought the rights to the film and sold them to Netflix.

They're releasing it on Netflix, not sold it to Netflix

As the article states:

The former first couple acquired "American Factory" at January's Sundance Festival, and will release it on Netflix

6 ( +6 / -0 )

It was a Republican controlled Conress which approved tax credits to American business owners moving factory equipment overseas, and it was a Republican president who signed that legislation into law.

https://prospect.org/article/trump%E2%80%99s-tax-cuts-incentivized-corporate-offshoring-these-dems-want-reverse

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Ironic. He wrote a story that as president he helped make happen. HA.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

What will be the price of a loaf of bread in LA in 20 years?

Answer: 25 Yuan

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Looks interesting and intelligent.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Gordon Chang mentioned in an interview how Americans are unaware of Chinese view of them. The Chinese believe that the Americans are an inferior people, kind of like subjects to the Chinese, with no culture. Ive experienced the same mentality from some Japanese; "those Americans" are all baka and only we superior Japanese can manufacture and lead the world in innovation. This is what happens when you are culturally unaware and assume everywhere is the same as your country and culture. I will never work for a Chinese or Japanese in the US. The differences in culture are obvious, there is no freedom of thought instead its a master/servant kind of relationship, with the non Chinese or Japanese at the bottom.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Gordon Chang mentioned in an interview how Americans are unaware of Chinese view of them. The Chinese believe that the Americans are an inferior people, kind of like subjects to the Chinese, with no culture. Ive experienced the same mentality from some Japanese; "those Americans" are all baka and only we superior Japanese can manufacture and lead the world in innovation. This is what happens when you are culturally unaware and assume everywhere is the same as your country and culture. I will never work for a Chinese or Japanese in the US. The differences in culture are obvious, there is no freedom of thought instead its a master/servant kind of relationship, with the non Chinese or Japanese at the bottom.

This is especially true of the Chinese.

They have a parable for this that eludes most people: the frog in the well. It only sees a tiny portion of the sky and thinks that's the whole world.

These kind of people live in their own myopic world.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This is especially true of the Chinese.

They have a parable for this that eludes most people: the frog in the well. It only sees a tiny portion of the sky and thinks that's the whole world.

These kind of people live in their own myopic world.

And a lot of conservatives!

Ironic. He wrote a story that as president he helped make happen. HA.

The Republican controlled Congress and the Republican President signed a law that gave tax credits for US companies to move overseas.

Every recession in the US starts after a Republican president takes office. It is always the Democratic President that saves the day like Pres. Obama, yet like Wolfpack mentioned before, the Republicans are fiscal hypocrites!

It is truly ironic!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"You're getting a slice of what globalization really looks like on a human level," said Reichert, adding: "I think the film leaves you with a sense of unease."

Nobody has tapped into that disquiet better than President Donald Trump, whose 2016 victory was built on successes in Ohio and nearby Michigan and Wisconsin.

For Ohio-based Reichert and Bognar, who have spent years interviewing blue-collar workers, that result was no surprise.

"We saw that coming, being in Ohio -- the enthusiasm, the yard signs," said Reichert. "Hillary Clinton was not well liked."

American workers have benefited hugely from Trump's policies.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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