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Review: American Factory

August 21, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

After closing their doors during the recession and leaving thousands of workers without a job, a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio got taken over by a Chinese company and was able to reopen in 2014 as Fuyao Glass America.

What happened next is documented in American Factory, a gripping and powerful documentary that uses a fly on the wall approach to show us the downfall of the American working class practically in real time. Many of the employees are brought back, but their hourly pay gets cut by more than half, and they are suddenly working alongside Chinese workers who barely speak English, leading to a deep culture clash.

The American workers are left struggling to keep up with Fuyao’s increased production demands, with the company expecting them to perform at the levels of output consistent with a Chinese factory where the workers are given very little time off, and their refusal to abide by basic worker’s rights leads to many safety violations and an increase in workplace injuries. The workers fight to form a union, but they get incredible pushback from their corporate overlords, who don’t want to comply with American regulatory standards in order to continue exploiting their workers for maximum financial gain.

Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, working in similar territory as their Oscar-nominated 2009 documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, American Factory is an exceptional portrait of blue-collar workers being left behind in the midst of a foreign takeover. The documentary’s largely vérité allows for many powerful and deeply human moments, including an impassioned speech by a union organizer and an impromptu performance of “Solidarity Forever” by workers demonstrating outside the factory.

The film offers an incredible snapshot of a watershed moment in America, where the working class has been decimated by corporate greed, leading to a complete cultural, societal and political upheaval that shows no signs of settling down anytime soon. It’s a classic David and Goliath story, only Goliath is sadly winning this time around and seems increasingly unbeatable.

American Factory is now playing in limited release at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival.

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