The author will analyze the documentary film “American Factory” and the way that its objective presentation of fact and the engaging style draws audiences into an understanding of all sides of the conflict. The author will begin by discussing the film principles that the directors use to create a well-told story, and how these techniques allow the directors to reach the audience and engage them in conversation regarding a solution. Following this the author looks at the cause of the culture clash which is depicted in the film, focusing on the comparison within an historical anthropology context, exploring the development of the different cultures in order to explore the reasons for cultural incompatibilities shown in the film. Next, the author will place the discussion of the various influences and social responses within cultural contexts. And finally, by her own opinions, the author will answer the question: what can media professionals do to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between cultures, as demonstrated in American Factory?
Keywords: Film, anthropology, American Factory, political systems
"American Factory", a 2019 documentary, is the first film produced by Barak and Michelle Obama's film production company Higher Ground Productions. Among many other awards, it received an Academy Award in 2020 for Best Documentary. The film tells the story of a the opening of a Fuyao glass factory in Moraine, a city near Dayton, Ohio. Fuyao makes 70% of all glass consumed in the world and their chairman, Cao Dewang, believed it would solve many supply chain and importing issues if they manufactured glass in the US. He chose to open a glass manufacturing plant in Moraine, a city just outside of Dayton, Ohio. Moraine is the location of the now defunct GM plant, which closed in 2008 and devastated the area's economy. Prior to this closure, in 1996, the GM plant was the site of an historic strike that crippled the auto industry across the nation.
Within the context of film analysis, the author will discuss and analyze the "American Factory" from four aspects: The author will (1) discuss the film principles that the directors use to create a well-told story, and explore how they reach the audience and engage them in conversation regarding a solution; (2) analyze the cause of the culture clash shown in the film, focusing on the comparison within an historical anthropology context, delving into the development of the different cultures in order to explore the reasons for cultural incompatibilities shown in the film; (3) place the discussion of the different influences and social responses under the different cultural contexts; (4) and finally, by her own opinions, the author will respond to the the question: what can media professionals do to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between cultures, as demonstrated in American Factory.
Upon opening the plant Dewang brought a trained workforce from China to support the manufacturing process and to supplement the 2000 local employees hired. At first the American workers appreciated the opportunity to go back to work again, but this job satisfaction was short lived. They had signed on for jobs which paid $12 per hour, but the jobs they had lost in 2008, when that same location had been a GM plant, started at $29 per hour. The workers had hope and wanted to support the resuscitation of the manufacturing sector in Dayton, and believed that the success of the company would also mean their success and pay raises would be inevitable. Soon, though, there was conflict between the Chinese management and the U.S laborers. At this point Fuyao saw the problem as a difference in the Chinese and Americans work ethic so Dewang flew the US managers to China to acquaint them with Chinese management styles. The filmmakers represent this conflict as one between the Chinese capitalists and U.S labor force, caused by the clash of Chinese and American cultures. The directors, however, explore alternative causes. They look beyond the obvious culture clash as the main cause of the tension between capitalist and labor, searching for deeper and more fundamental causes, framing the conflict as one between oppression and resistance. For example, the directors continued to point out that the nature and essential purpose of global capital is same: seeking profit as the first priority, whether or not the company is located in China or the United States, and whether or not the workers are Chinese or American. Throughout the film, the directors show the audience the Fuyao's worldwide locations. The audience can see that no matter if the workers in the company are in China or the U.S, they are all under the same oppressive situation. So, on this point, the directors want to tell us: the real cause of the tension in Fuyao, is the essential purpose of the global capitalists, they all chase their biggest profits by oppressing laborers. The film concludes with an additional conflict, revealing that machines are gradually replacing human positions in Fuyao. So, the directors put forward a deeper question: if it is an inevitable development that high-tech will replace manpower in our society, then, what direction will blue-collar workers be able to go? What kind of warning should we ponder at this stage in order to prepare for the potential issues in our society in the future?
One theme that runs throughout the film is hope and disappointment from the lens of social expectation, and how misunderstandings can have devastating effects on human interactions. Because of both preconceived notions, and miscommunication, the Chinese workers and the American workers clash. We see American workers criticizing the Chinese workers repeatedly in the film for neglecting safety and thus putting their fellow workers in danger, which is viewed as not being a team player or having any care for their co-workers. On the other hand, the Chinese workers criticize the American workers for being lazy and thus burdening their co-workers and not being a team player. We see the theme played out between the management and the workers, as workers try to unionize and the management hires people to come in and discourage union formation. The theme of dashed hopes rooted in social expectations gone awry are played out within the context of the universal conflict between capitalists and labor.
The filmmakers tell a good story by using the principals of film storytelling. According to Prof. David Howard, in his book, “The Tools of Screenwriting”, a failure of a story is to persuade audiences to believe thesis inside. In the “American Factory”, the directors didn't try to provide a solution, or convince their audience to accept a certain viewpoint or concept. They objectively showed us oppression and resistance between labor and capitalist; furthermore, the directors reveal the challenge of mechanized production which will eventually eliminate human labor. Thus the film raises a question at the end, where should human labor go in the future? How should our society redeploy resources to cope with this change and challenge? The last shot shows the machines replacing humans' position and leaves audience an open and profound space in which to ponder these questions. The manner in which the material was presented, objectively but leading to a recognition of a problem, though not a didactic presentation of a solution, fits with Prof. Howard's observation that great filmmakers do not preach or teach, they open a dialog with their audience.
In addition, through the tool of "character building" the film’s directors connect the audience with the subjects of the film, creating a relationship between the audience and the subjects allows the different values, working attitude, and personality traits between Chinese and American laborers to be seen more personally and with compassion. The film shows us that both Chinese and American workers, seek the same thing, they all hope to get a higher salary, better job security, and provide a better life for their families through work, that is, a secure job with fair income. The obstacles for them are the same too, that is, the oppression from Fuyao. Through the filmmakers' particular choices in interview questions, setting, and editing, the audience relates to all the subjects: American workers, Chinese workers, and management on both sides. On this point of establishment of characters, the directors represent the authenticity of humanity. To further expand the characterization, the filmmakers have several points that bring the subjects to life. The friendship between two workers, although they are representing two different cultures, is an example of this. As is the wedding couples in China and how touched the US manager is -- how his colleagues thought he was unhappy but he had tears of joy -- was another scene where the filmmakers' character building made a deep connection with the audience, facilitating effective storytelling.
The accompanying music also draws the audience into the story. It sets an emotional sweep and is timed brilliantly to cause the audience to connect with the various scenes in the film. The entire movie is well paced, thanks to skillful editing, so as to engage the viewer. The cinematography is crisp and lends itself to an objective presentation.
Throughout the film we see the director show many instances of miscommunications and collisions between the Chinese and the U.S workers. This is not portrayed as a simple cultural difference or clash, but a deeper ideological tension between the value systems in China and the United States. This conflict is caused by so many factors. In the following content, the author will focus on the cause that is based in Historical Anthropology and Sociology.
Comparing two examples through an historical anthropological lens we can see that even though a Chinese mom in Fuyao doesn’t like working overtime because that reduces her time to be with her young children, she still insists on putting Fuyao’s needs and her work schedule as her first priority. On the other hand, a U.S mom complained about Fuyao’s low salary. Now, with 12 dollars per hour, she cannot even make a quick decision if she should buy her kid a sports shoe. This demonstrates how the Chinese worker is more submissive to authority; but the U.S worker focuses more on their individual needs. Then, what causes these differences?
The author believes the different developments of the two civilizations causes differences between cultures. It can be seen throughout the history of human development that different regions have different social divisions of labor and economic models, which are in part based on their geography, thereby shaping people's different ideologies, thinking modes, and values. Chinese collectivism and nationalism are mainly developed from their agricultural farming society which is framed by most of their regions which are geographical features of the inland plains. Most ancient Chinese were living on the plains of the both sides of the “Yangtze River”. Because the soil there was fertile and suitable for crops to grow, ancient Chinese societies developed a collective agricultural society. Because heavy farming work requires large numbers of workers to work together, gradually, people in farming groups developed a submissive attitude and manner of respecting authority to meet the needs of multi-party cooperation in the heavy farming process. To add to this, Confucianism, the dominant religion/philosophy in China from 500 years BCE until 1949, taught a deep devotion to others and required many levels of obligation to family, friends, village, country, etc. This was not true of the dominant religion in the west from 33CE until the present. Christianity focused on individual responsibility and individual accountability. In addition, western culture developed within a context of exploration and conquering. During the multiple expansion periods of western history, western people put more emphasis on personal strength and leadership. Because western culture was formed by "sea expansion", people value personal heroism and leadership, independence and freedom, and are accustomed to use "critical thinking” toward authority control. These factors cause the working attitudes of the Chinese and the American workers to be completely different. The film shows that the Chinese workers take it for granted they must work overtime for the benefit of Fuyao, and they do so without complaints. When their personal needs conflict with the needs of company, they will always defer to the company. On the contrary, American workers criticize the low wages, which do not match the overload of work, and are harmful to the workers’ personally.
We can further see the dichotomy between the cultures by comparing the interpretation of the film in both China and the US. Comparing the perceptions of American and Chinese audiences we can see the culture conflict up close. Chinese audiences saw hope and victory within the context of the film and American audiences saw hopelessness and a sense of grief. The time in America when factory work was respectable work that could feed a family is over and there is grief for the loss. In China there is joy in the victory of conquering the manufacturing sector worldwide. So audience members, bound to the biases inherent in their respective cultures, saw in the film a confirmation of what they already believed. “American Factory” is meaningful for Chinese society to celebrate the victory of Chinese industrial manufacturing on the world stage. When Chinese audiences heard that this film won an Academy Award, most of them believed that this means the film has shown the world an increasingly powerful China. Most Chinese audiences focus on the disadvantages of the American labor force, and praise the Chinese labor's strong points with their working skills and attitude. On the other side, American society reacts to this film as more self-reflection and preparation to make adjustments. As the local heavy industries in the United States have been gradually shifted to other countries for so many years ago, the consequence of this is that local workers are losing their jobs and losing their competitiveness in a global market. The reaction of the American audiences after the broadcast of "American Factory" is to self-reflect on its original industrial chain transfer, to reconsider its current international policies, and to think about the problems that may be encountered in the future. After the "American Factory" was broadcast, the world experienced the epidemic, and the former Trump government, and China officially launched the 2018 China-US trade war, which intensified tensions in China-US relations. Regarding the deterioration of China-US relations today, there is a direct timeline development and a logical connection with the warnings that are conveyed by the film at that time.
I admire the directors in their exploration of the culture clash between China and the U.S. in that they can reflect the truth of the theme with their authenticity. This is the first step to bridge the gap of cultural misunderstanding. If we conceal the concept of truth in our works, or provide ambiguous and incomplete concepts, this will hinder the audience from understanding the full truth of situations. Then the misunderstanding will remain or even turn into a worse situation. So media professionals should do as much as they can do to depict the truth objectively and communicate to audiences with their authenticity. In this way we attract society’s attention and call on more social resources to participate in the discussion, then the question or problem will have chance to be solve, and the misunderstanding will be reduced by communication.
The second thing I learned is that when all the truths have been uncovered, but the tensions still remain, media professionals need to encourage audiences to continue exploring from the other perspectives. In "American Factory", the directors raise a deeper question, or voice a warning, at the end, that might cause discomfort for some people, but it is truly helpful for social discussion in order to make a brighter future for our society’s long-term development. It is the mission of media professionals to lead audiences to explore more potential possibilities for answers. I believe the directors of "American Factory" have performed well on this point when they showed the last shot to raise a deeper question in the end of “American Factory”: Since the essence of capital is to earn the greatest surplus value, it is the inevitable future of global industrial cooperation that machinery will replace labor.
All in all this movie presents a social issue that needs to be addressed, within the context of a culture clash, and it informs the audience honestly and leaves them with both awareness and informational resources to work at solving the problem.
American Factory (Chinese: 美国工厂)
directors: Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert
Higher Ground Productions
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