Filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have watched as the industrial Midwest has cratered around them. High-paying factory jobs once stretched from western Pennsylvania to Michigan, providing a comfortable working-class living enabling workers to buy a home, two cars and send their children off to college.
All of that changed as plants closed and jobs outsourced to Mexico and China. Those jobs that are left pay significantly less than they used to, further eroding the livelihood of the once-prosperous Rust Belt.
“You see a little bit why Trump got elected—not that we knew that at that time,” said Reichert, co-director with Bognar of the new Netflix documentary “American Factory,” which is about a Chinese conglomerate’s plans to revive one ailing Ohio factory.
“Income inequality we all recognize is a definite problem,” Reichert said. “The fact that you have CEOs that make 500 times what the average worker makes, that never used to be true.”
In 2009 Reichert and Bognar produced the Oscar-nominated “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” about the shuttering of a General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio, that suddenly tossed 5,000 people out of work. It is that same facility that features in the duo’s new doc, “American Factory,” after it was purchased by the Chinese company Fuyao.
“When the empty factory started coming back to life, conversations started happening between the Americans and the Chinese that this is going to be historic, huge. Someone should document this,” said Bognar. “Some other folks said there’s these two filmmakers in town who made this other film. Why not ask them if they’re interested.”
Interested they were, and beginning in 2015—and continuing over three years—the duo captured the daily lives of workers, management as well as meetings with Fuyao’s eccentric billionaire owner, Cho Tak Wong.
“Everyone calls him ‘Chairman Cho,’” Bognar said. “He’s a maverick, he’s had a long career, and he doesn’t worry that much about what people might think.”
Indeed, Bognar and Reichert insisted on complete editorial independence with their documentary, and accepted no money from Fuyao as a result. Cho not only agreed, but assented to being filmed.
“There are things you see in the film that you don’t like that he does,” Reichert said. “I believe you need to stand in the shoes of the person you’re interviewing and try to see the world through their eyes.”
“He kind of got what we wanted to show,” added Bognar. “We told him there’s going to be struggles and we have to be able to film those struggles if you want it to be an authentic story. Because without struggle, there is no story.”
The struggle is indeed real, and Reichert said it was crucial to capture the daily lives of all involved at the factory, from management and ownership right on down to the factory floor.
“I think your loyalties shift as you watch the film,” she said. “You can see the chairman’s point of view: We’re losing money. You see the workers’ point of view: We’re all getting injured. It’s super hot in here. And [management]: Well it would cost a lot.”
“Everybody is going through something, and my view is, what are you going through today?” she said. “What challenges do you face? What keeps you up at night?”
Because the filmmakers were local, they were able to return home each night, which both gave a greater bonding with their subjects and allowed for them to become “part of the wallpaper.” Accordingly, they view the documentary as more cinema verité than a talking heads approach.
“People start ignoring you even though you’re carrying a camera with a mic on top and you sometimes put a microphone on them,” Reichert said, adding that she and Bognar also sat in on executive meetings and union confabs in the same way.
“When we started filming this movie, we didn’t know it would be three years,” added Bognar. “But we also didn’t worry about what the story was, who the characters would be. The more we make films, the more comfortable we are with not knowing.
“It’s OK to not know. You just show up and people and story threads will reveal themselves over time. We try not to judge.”
The filmmakers say that Fuyao’s reopening of an American factory, and installing many of their own workers, mirrors what is happening worldwide thanks to globalization. In China, where parts of “American Factory” were shot, a rapidly rising middle class has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but the question now is whether America will become more like China or the other way around.
“We’re fascinated with these tectonic plates of the global economy are shifting. How is that impacting working people?” Bognar said, calling it an “unresolved” matter.
The filmmakers have much praise for the Ohio people they saw and spoke with: Even in the midst of economic hardship, there remains a can-do work ethic there. However, the loss of the industrial Midwest echoes a macrosocial unease about declining wages and lower buying power everywhere.
“My dad didn’t finish 8th grade. He had a union job, we had vacations, we drove across the country,” Reichert said. “There was never a sense that we aren’t going to be able to pay our bills or lose our home, which is how people feel now.”
“And there’s a direct correlation between the decline in union membership, the decline in wages, and the rise of the union-avoidance industry,” all of which are discussed in their film, Bognar added.
At one point in the doc, the filmmakers cut back and forth between American and Chinese workers leaving for the day, which they said was meant to head off thoughts of the “other” and show that, economically at least, the entire world is unquestionably interconnected.
“They have more in common than [an] appeal to nationalism” might lead them to believe, Reichert said. “It’s us as filmmakers wanting to say that working people can have a good life and enjoy their time after work.”
“American Factory” premieres on Netflix Wednesday