The Obamas’ Netflix Takeover Has Officially Begun
The eye-opening documentary “American Factory,” making its debut Aug. 21, is Barack and Michelle Obama’s first project as part of their massive Netflix deal.
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar were understandably thrilled when American Factory—their new documentary about the opening of a Chinese auto glass factory in Ohio, and the culture-clash issues that ensued—took home the U.S. Documentary Directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But they were just as excited when they began taking meetings with distributors for their latest, and the most interested party turned out to be none other than Barack and Michelle Obama.
“We were astonished,” admits Reichert shortly before American Factory’s Aug. 21 debut on Netflix and at NYC’s IFC Center (with theatrical premieres to follow in Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and London). “We live in Ohio, which of course is always a swing state, and we had worked really, really hard on the first election of the president, and the second one as well, and we’re huge fans.”
American Factory will be the first release by the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions as part of their partnership with Netflix, and Bognar acknowledges that their collaboration with the former First Couple (and company co-heads Priya Swaminathan and Tonia Davis) wasn’t the least bit expected. “It was a very big surprise. We did not foresee it at all,” he says. “We were kind of blown away.” Nonetheless, given the political timeliness of this non-fiction tale, it isn’t difficult to see why the Obamas were interested.
“What we heard at that meeting was that the First Lady really related to the film because she comes from a working-class background—her dad was a worker who put on his uniform and went to work every day,” Reichert says. “They both come from humble beginnings. The president related to that as well, but apparently related more to the policy implications.” Bognar also believes that “the questions the film raises about big-picture stuff” regarding globalization, and the fate of the American and Chinese worker in the 21st century, were natural draws for the former commander-in-chief.
Moreover, “if you think about it, both of them are storytellers. They’ve written excellent books, and they tend in their speeches to tell stories,” says Reichert, with Bognar adding, “One of the goals of Higher Ground is to bring people together through storytelling.”
There’s definitely plenty of story to be found in American Factory, which in up-close-and-personal fashion details the efforts of China’s Fuyao corporation (run by a hands-on Chairman) to establish an auto glass-manufacturing operation in the very same space that Reichert and Bognar first depicted in their Oscar-nominated 2009 short film The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. Their saga begins hearteningly, with eager-for-employment American workers enthusiastically joining Fuyao alongside imported Chinese laborers. Yet once the plant is up and running, problems arise from the different attitudes, methods and expectations of the company’s American and Chinese employees, leading to mounting resentment and, ultimately, a battle over unionization.
For Reichert and Bognar, a return trip to the plant they’d previously documented wasn’t on their radar: “We thought we’d never go into that factory again,” Bognar says. However, their familiarity with the milieu and its history, as well as the people they’d met while filming The Last Truck, made them ideally suited to recount American Factory’s events. “Having made that film and gotten to know those workers, it helped us understand the stakes they had in finding another manufacturing job, especially in that very same place,” states Reichert. “People wanted to go back in there. It had been a good experience for them to have been in that plant for years.
“We didn’t initially understand the Chinese side’s stakes, but we came to understand that through getting to know some Chinese folks,” she continues. “And [also from] our Chinese co-producers, who helped us understand the Chinese juggernaut these past decades, with China pulling out of rural poverty into burgeoning middle class. Just as our workers have been seeing a decline in their circumstances, the Chinese workers are seeing a real rise.” While Chinese workers consequently feel a sense of great pride in their vocation, their employer, and their country, their American colleagues had a different perspective. “I think the American workers are in a really different place. Their circumstances are much diminished. Their country is kind of in turmoil, in terms of leadership. So they don’t feel that same kind of commitment to the company.”
Central to American Factory is the rising tension between Chinese and American ways of doing things. The Americans balk at the Chinese desire to work employees hard and ignore basic safety standards, while the Chinese view their stateside compatriots as lazy and entitled. To Bognar, such dichotomies exist but aren’t necessarily cut-and-dried. “We would hear a slogan in the factory that the Chinese live to work and Americans work to live,” he recalls. “The more time we spent with Chinese workers there, who were away from their families for a year or two, we could feel their loneliness and longing for their families. So we feel like that’s just not true—Chinese people miss their kids like Americans do. It’s more about what’s normalized. What’s normalized for Chinese is that you work 12 hours a day, six days a week. What’s normalized for Americans is that you don’t do that—you work eight-hour days, five days a week. Expectations, and the landscape you’re used to, have a huge influence on your attitude toward the work.”
To Reichert, recognizing those distinctions is key. “We have to learn to understand the different cultures around the world. I think what we tried to do with this movie, once we saw what we had, was to show you what globalization looks like on a human, intimate scale in one factory. I think that’s valuable. We’re not trying to draw a conclusion, or to say this is what we have to do about something. The best we felt we could do in this time of great change—economically and culturally, around the world—was present, in the most direct, visceral way, what this globalization looks and feels like for people.”
The more union sentiment arises amongst American Fuyao employees, the more the Chairman and management endeavor to quash it, including via the use of union-avoidance consultants. Although that amplifies the impression that the Chinese are not interested in treating workers reasonably, Bognar is quick to point out that “Fuyao learned about this kind of approach from Americans. It’s not like a Chinese import thing… American companies try to get around unions and try to minimize EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules. They try to get by on as little of that impacting profit as possible.”
Consequently, “It’s not a done deal either way. China’s not a monolith and it’s not like their environmental attitudes or health and safety attitudes can’t evolve. Our hope is that if China is out in the world—especially in the U.S. or in Western and Northern Europe, where there’s a more regulatory climate and a bigger safety net for workers—then that will influence their industries.”
Change clearly is afoot both here and in China, with Bognar revealing that the Chairman told them one of the reasons he came to the U.S. was because of rising labor costs at home—a development he feared would eventually transform China from a manufacturing hub into the sort of service-and-consumer culture that America has become. Thus, according to Bognar, any attempt to pigeonhole American and Chinese workers misses the bigger picture: “We don’t believe in this sort of reductive kind of compare-contrast, because there’s nuance everywhere. We can say that the Chinese are more conformist, but look at what’s going on in Hong Kong right now. Those folks are the least conformist people in the world at this moment.”
Situated between often-opposing forces, Reichert and Bognar found it challenging to stay impartial, especially once union debates kicked into high gear. According to Reichert, that was epitomized by a seemingly innocuous decision that, they came to understand, had much larger implications.
“You’re going around the plant, and it’s hot on the concrete floors, it’s huge, and you’re walking miles carrying heavy stuff,” she explains. “And sometimes, one of the management people would zoom by on one of those little golf carts, and say, ‘Hey, jump in, do you want a ride?’ We’d jump in thinking, this is so much better. We’d whiz past a lot of people working who we knew and who we were establishing relationships with. Then we realized that this made them think we were part of management; that we were doing this [film] on the part of the company, because they certainly didn’t get to jump on golf carts and ride around. So we had to stop doing that. In order to maintain our neutrality, that was something we couldn’t do.”
American Factory’s conclusion suggests that the next big labor revolution will be automation, and Reichert, for one, sees that as a potential positive. “We’ve had automation since the cotton gin,” she laughs. “Automation shouldn’t be seen as a threat; it should be seen as an opportunity for people who work to not break their backs, and to not have repetitive stress injuries and surgeries because of their work. It should be seen as an opportunity.”
Still, she concedes that automation will only benefit those who have a say in its implementation. “We’re not going to have a solid future of work, or a solid middle class, if working people have no bargaining power and no collective voice. Because who’s going to speak for the average working person? I think working people have learned that you can’t expect the government to do that, necessarily. Certainly, the companies aren’t going to do that. So I guess we’ve come to see that, around the world, we’d have a better world if workers had more voice in their daily work life.”