Sundance 2019: 'American Factory' Captures a Modern Culture Clash
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2019
We're currently in the Golden Age of documentaries, with so many outstanding films premiering every year. Sundance always hosts some of the best filmmakers, who bring some of the best documentaries to premiere in the mountains every January. American Factory, the latest doc by filmmaking team Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, is a documentary masterpiece - plain and simple. This is an exhilarating, impressive-in-every-way film that rivals the work of Frederick Wiseman, utilizing a similar style with massive amounts of captivating fly-on-the-wall footage. American Factory is about Dayton, Ohio and what happens when a Chinese billionaire buys a GM factory that recently shut down and re-opens it as a Chinese glass company, hiring back all the workers who were laid off. They exquisitely capture the modern culture clash that ensues.
This documentary really blew me away. It's a remarkable portrait of modern times showing how different cultures truly are, and how it's not easy to get along despite a genuine desire for global unity. It's an astute, unbiased look at the changing times. What makes this film particularly compelling is how fair and balanced it is - they don't lean towards one side or another. Obviously it is made by American filmmakers, and most of it takes place on American soil, but they don't pick and choose, and they don't present footage that makes one side look more or less worse than the other. They show things exactly as they are - indeed for better or worse - including stunning footage of the Chinese billionaire, known as the "Chairman", who speaks frankly about his business practices while visiting Ohio to make sure things are running smoothly. And they're not, which is when he turns the heat up (literally) and the local American workers become even more frustrated.
This objective presentation is part of the brilliance of this film. Every single viewer will have their own bias that they bring into this, and presenting this contemporary clash of humanity with an even-keel allows for multiple interpretations. Every viewer will most definitely have something to say after watching the film, and it's a potent conversation starter that encourages a great amount of debate. Who is doing things right? Are they both bad? Are the Chinese really worse? Are the Americans lazy? Who needs to change? Should the workers learn to adapt, or does the business need to adapt to succeed? I am sure that Chinese viewers will understand the problems with the American workers, who are unwilling to change their ways. And American viewers will empathize with all the American workers, further fueling resentment towards and a distrust of other cultures, some of which severely take advantage of their workforce despite their diligence and loyalty.
I am very impressed by the way this film shows all the different sides of the story with so much incredible access. It's entertaining to watch, and seriously invigorating, drawing you into the story and the experiences of every single person there. They have a wide range of interviews, and tons of "I can't believe they got this shot at that right moment" footage that makes up a bulk of the film. There is crazy footage of the Chinese managers explaining to the Chinese workforce who were brought over to America about the various cultural norms and amusing traits of American people. It's an eye-opening look-in-the-mirror examination and only one of the many aspects of the film that makes it so captivating. I honestly think they're both bad examples - neither side is entirely worth defending. There is the theme of "adapt or die" present throughout as well. Whatever you make of the situation, this is a extraordinary doc that perfectly captures a moment in history.
All of this only goes back to prove that these filmmakers have made a masterpiece. A documentary that so clearly captures and explains, without telling us outright, how people begin to hate each other. And how it's not easy to suddenly adapt and integrate into a whole different world, as there are cultural aspects deeply ingrained in each of us that we don't even recognize. But this film allows us to see that, to be a fly-on-the-wall and watch as regular people experience this clash of cultures first-hand. It's a study of humanity, and all the good & bad sides. It's also a study of culture, and business, and how industry changes, how evolution is slow, how stubborn so many are, and how important it is to recognize & support the basic needs of every single worker - no matter where they are within the hierarchy. This is one of the best docs you'll see all year.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 9.8 out of 10
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