Work of Art / Art of Work

Occasional Reviews & Cultural Commentary from the Higgins Community

Eleanor Huntington (ND ‘10) ponders work and identity in the documentary American Factory

May 2020

Eleanor Huntington, who majored in History and FTT (Film, Theater, & Television) at Notre Dame, lives and works in Los Angeles, where she was once deep in the entertainment world during film school and is now deep in the work world in business school.

During the European Enlightenment, monarchs who claimed to enact rules for the benefit of their subjects, while retaining their belief in their divine right to do so, are referred to as “enlightened despots.” As presented in the 2020 Academy Award-winning Best Documentary Feature Film, American Factory (2019; directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert; Higher Ground Productions, Netflix), Fuyao Glass’s Founder and Chairman, Cao Dewang, mirrors his work identity to that of an enlightened despot. Chairman Cao opens his new glass factory outside of Dayton, Ohio, the first expansion by the Chinese company into the United States, to great fanfare and positive PR about Chinese investment in the lives of American workers. The local leadership and unemployed residents warmly welcome his investment in the region, an area devastated by the most recent financial crisis and the 2008 closure of a General Motors plant. Chairman Cao miraculously arrives in Ohio to help out-of-work laborers return to the factory line and regain their sense of self. (The film only hints at his more despotic side, in which he takes advantage of an economically-depressed region to ramp up his bottom line.)  

Through the course of covering a nearly three-year period in the factory, the filmmakers, married couple and local residents Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, explore Chairman Cao’s and his workers’ work identities and presentations.  The film has no clear protagonist and does not track all of the interviewee subjects across the narrative; instead, the audience is granted vignettes into different Chinese and Ohioan workers’ lives. The Chinese workers in Fuqing — understandably given filming constraints — are granted only minimal interview time, and they appear to be self-sacrificial, choosing to live apart from their kids and being grateful to routinely work six days a week, and more, if necessary. The American workers speak insistently about how much they want to work, how much they have missed working, and how much they love to work, though they are also shown becoming much angrier when given unclear instructions and when asked to perform hazardous work without the protections guaranteed to them as American workers. The film presents the seemingly simplistic notion that the Americans’ perception of dignity in the workplace is directly correlated to their sense of well-being and safety, while the Chinese workers believe their dignity comes from being part of the collective group and getting the job done — no matter what the personal cost.

The most apparent cultural dichotomy, one that is often reduced to preexisting stereotypes, depicts a vast chasm between American independence and the Chinese work ethic. The filmmakers access cultural training sessions given to the Chinese supervisors, with lessons about American fragility and need for validation. When a group of Ohioan workers travel to China to visit headquarters, the Americans appear slovenly and underdressed, and the Chinese safety vest does not fit one of the larger men. The men are invited to the company’s annual awards ceremony held to celebrate Chinese New Year. The songs and performances present a unified workforce, dedicated to lean manufacturing and meeting production goals. Whereas the Chinese workers are used to standing and counting off in formation, working twelve-hour-plus days, and infrequently seeing their children, the American workers complain about the unclean microwaves. The American workers often talk about how they love their work, but also how they are angry about low pay, substandard safety concerns, and lack of representation. Several workers begin to agitate, and then to organize, with the hope of bringing the United Auto Workers to the plant. One even comments that “Somedays you just have to be Sally Field,” in reference to her role in the classic Hollywood labor film Norma Rae

This film, the first distributed under Higher Ground Productions, a company led by former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, not only reflects how the head of a Chinese company and the various American and Chinese workers view themselves through the lens of work, but also forecasts how the Obamas see their role in the work world post-presidency. For the Obamas, this film solidifies them as power players in the world of commercially viable documentaries. As high-profile producers, they recognize that their seeming stamp of approval on this work draws additional attention to the questions and issues raised in the film. As they move further and further away from the White House, a film like American Factory ensures that the Obamas remain relevant to and continue to drive the socioeconomic and political conversations moving the country forward. 

I write this review from Los Angeles, a city that, in addition to being the center of the American film industry, is both a strong (entertainment) union town and a city reliant on the gig economy and below the line workers without cache or organizing power. As the industry is at a standstill, and as millions of Americans have lost or stand to lose their jobs, this film provides insight into the importance of workplace identity. In addition to pay and benefits, American and international workers may lose their sense of self and ability to effectively advocate for themselves. Among the most devastating scenes presented in American Factory are those in which the American workers are utterly broken by the impossibility of supporting their families or affording apartments. Their feelings of powerlessness and uselessness are palpable — and visibly upsetting to the audience. At this moment in history, in which we collectively will be reshaping local, national, and international economies, we need to consider and construct systems that maintain workplace dignity by recognizing the myriad ways people interpret and present their own work lives.

Prior Work of Art/Art of Work entries:

Three Notre Dame historians unpack Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 masterpiece Roma (February 2020).
Ricky Herbst asks Dan Graff to select his Top 3: Bosses in Film (September 2018).
Charlice Hurst praises Solange’s album A Seat at the Table (March 2017).
Dan Graff celebrates the film Hidden Figures (February 2017).
Dan Graff dissects Henry Mosler’s painting Forging the Cross (March 2016).
Jon Coleman sees labor haunting Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (February 2016).
Nicole MacLaughlin reviews David Simon’s Show Me a Hero (January 2016).
Dan Graff interrogates Nancy Meyers’ The Intern (November 2015).