Documentary Review: Netflix’s American Factory (2019)

Reviewed by Ong Jie Yee

[Warning: spoilers ahead] 

You have run out of excuses to not watch Netflix’s American Factory; it was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary this year, and now you are stuck at home with all the time in the world. 

If you are looking for a documentary about the US-China trade war and President Trump’s endless tirade against China, American Factory is about more than that. The documentary is interested in the cultural side of work ethics.  

American Factory follows the entrance of a Chinese automobile glass manufacturing company, Fuyao, into the state of Ohio. Blue-collar Chinese and American factory workers are the main voices in the documentary, and the cultural difference is undoubtedly stark. What we are presented with is essentially two extreme ends of a spectrum. Factory worker Wong and his peers from mainland China exhibit military-style discipline at work and are hesitant about the formation of a labour union. American workers, on the other hand, are portrayed as lax in disposition and operate in conflict with the management. However, viewers are also given insight into the Chinese executives’ blatant disregard of workers’ welfare, while the American higher-ups approach their employees in a much more considerate manner, such as taking into consideration each individual’s opinion or circumstances when making top-down decisions about workplace safety. It would be fruitless to attempt to judge which work culture is “better”; what these people are striving for is the same: a happier family, a better life, and a brighter future. 

American Factory has no voiceovers — unusual for a documentary. Its detachment from ideological bias, with no intentional framing of a ‘villain’ or a ‘protagonist’ like many documentaries, allows for nuanced pondering. It is these subversive qualities that make American Factory worthwhile. 

But there is a twist to this. While the struggle between the individual versus the collective continues to play out in Ohio and halfway across the globe in China, a common enemy is creeping its way into the manufacturing industry. In the final scene, when Fuyao’s CEO Cao Dewang makes his monthly visit to Fuyao in Ohio, viewers are confronted with a depressing reality unbeknownst to all the workers in the factory. Automation is set to replace repetitive, manual factory labour in the near future. American or Chinese, millions will be out of jobs. In the end, it is not the culture clash that will be costly. It is robots and machines. 

The final takeaway? We are similar in more ways than we are different.  

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