"American Factory" filmmakers on how the Dayton-set doc became one of the year's most joyful movies

Directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar on their comic, surreal, true-life tale of a Chinese factory in Ohio

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 3, 2020 6:30PM (EST)

American Factory (Netflix)
American Factory (Netflix)

You might not expect a documentary called "American Factory," which pretty much plays by the rigorous rules of cinéma-vérité — that is, no narration, no talking-head commentary, no recreated scenes, and a bare minimum of explanatory titles — to feature one of the most dazzling dance sequences of the year. Or, in fact, two of them. But such are the delights of a film that started out as a study of American labor in the 21st century and morphed into something strange and wonderful and altogether unexpected.

Mind you, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar's Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary is about labor in the 21st century. (The film is now inevitably associated with Barack and Michelle Obama, who released it under their Higher Ground banner. But the Obamas played no role in making the movie.) Specifically, it's about what happens when a defunct General Motors plant just outside Dayton, Ohio, is reborn as the U.S. production facility for Fuyao, a Chinese firm that is one of the world's largest manufacturers of auto glass. Reichert and Bognar live in Dayton, and were uniquely positioned to make this movie: Their 2009 film "The Last Truck" documented the closing of the GM plant where many Chevrolet and GMC pickups were once manufactured.

As the directors told me in a recent phone interview, they went into the re-engineered Fuyao factory expecting to focus on the stories of the people who came to work there, and the sense of new hope this injection of Chinese capital was bringing to a seriously depressed heartland region. But abstractions like labor and the economy never exist in isolation from society and, in the larger sense of the word, from culture. 

More than anything else, "American Factory" is the story of a sometimes comical and sometimes heartbreaking collision of cultures, as managers and engineers from a remote industrial region of China come to America — skipping New York and Hollywood entirely and parachuting directly into southwestern Ohio. It's not a huge surprise that Fuyao's Dayton plant isn't as immediately productive or profitable as its proprietors expect, or that a Chinese company repeatedly falls afoul of U.S. labor laws and fights back hard against a union organizing drive. 

But other things in Reichert and Bognar's film are completely surprising, including the trip to China that concludes with the aforementioned dance sequences — one of them involving burly American workers doing the "YMCA" routine — or the abrupt switchback that almost makes Fuyao chairman Cao Dewang, a taciturn, toadlike billionaire, into a sympathetic figure. This is a film about the state of the human economy right now, made with tremendous sympathy and eyes wide open, that reveals a great deal but leaves the explanations to us.

I recently spoke to the directors by phone from Los Angeles, where they're preparing to attend this year's Oscar ceremony. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I've had trouble at times explaining to friends and family members that a movie called "American Factory" is not going to be some boring lecture about the economy. It's actually going to be an entertaining and engrossing story. 

Julia Reichert: It's funny!

It is! Very funny. But how much did you know about the kind of story you were going to get when you went into this project?

Reichert: Pretty much nothing. I'll tell you what we did know. We had made "The Last Truck," you might be aware of that film, in 2008 when the economy crashed.

Sure. Which is set in the same actual factory, right?

Reichert: Exactly. Same exact building, which had been rusting away, with raccoons living in there and all that. So to be honest, at the beginning our hearts were with the blue-collar workers and I think initially we were thinking the log line would be, like, "Chinese billionaire buys abandoned General Motors factory and hires 2,000 Americans and brings over hundreds of Chinese workers. Complications ensue." We knew things were going to happen that were surprising, but we had zero clue what.

We thought we were going to be, once again, following the fate of the blue-collar workers and of our town, Dayton, which we did in "The Last Truck." And then, of course, you walk in there and, after the first few days you see there are hundreds of Chinese people in there and you realize they all have a story. And gosh, they all got on an airplane in a small city in China, having never been anywhere, most of them. And they got off the airplane in Dayton, Ohio, a very small city in the U.S. and had to start a life here. And that was going to be a big story.

We had the chairman, who agreed to talk to us, we did a number of interviews with him over time. Then we realized we had to kind of get to know the management, we couldn't just talk to blue-collar workers. So the management folks, many of them at first were Americans and they were fine people, nice people. We liked them. So we started realizing that we were going to hang out with everybody.

Steven Bognar: We realized the management had stakes as well. A lot of those Americans who came to work as managers or vice presidents, they had quit other jobs in the Dayton area. They were taking a chance on this startup company, and they had high stakes as well.

Reichert: Oh, yeah. They had really good jobs in government, with other companies. Honestly, I think a lot of people were attracted to the exciting possibilities of starting a whole new factory, a whole new industry, really, for Dayton's manufacturing class. It really drew people who were up for a challenge. Nobody's asked us about that before, but I think that was actually a big thing. When you think back to why people did this ...

Bognar: Well, like Dave and John. Dave was the vice president and John was president, they both get fired — you see that in the movie. So John was working at another glass company. He had been a submarine skipper. Dave was working in economic development in Dayton. And they both had good jobs and they quit to take a chance on Fuyao. 

Right — one of the things that really drives this story, and it sounds like you did become aware of this, is this sense of tremendous hope and possibility that was present in that community. And then the different ways that started to — not completely vanish, but erode and chip away and change.

Reichert: Yeah. We always say that was the honeymoon phase when there was all the curiosity and humor and good will. But then the sh*t started hitting the fan, especially when, for the workers, the pay didn't go up, which they expected. And from the company's point of view, from the chairman's point of view, they weren't making profit. What would happen in China is you build a brand new plant, you open it, you're going to make profit in a year. Well that did not happen. And that's a very unrealistic expectation of a plant being built or refurbished in America. You have contractors to deal with, you have EPA to deal with, you have a lot more hoops to jump through in terms of building codes, all that stuff.

Their first target was June 2016 to have a profit, and they blew that. And then they blew by October, which was the grand opening. They finally reached steady profit in the summer of 2018. So they were definitely way behind, in terms of patience. But that leads the Chinese to put more pressure on the Americans, and then the Americans start to feel disrespected and not treated well. And frictions kept rising.

Bognar: They were working too fast, being expected to work too hard, management was not being as kind to them. Just some of the friendliness went out of it. I mean, we have a scene where the chairman says, "We've lost $40 million to date." For him, this is not acceptable.

Reichert: This just occurred to me. There's one point when he says, just before he fires the American management and a lot of the supervisors get demoted, he says, "I paid these Americans a good salary and I trusted them to run things. Why didn't they do it?" Then he pauses and then he says, "I think they're hostile to Chinese."

Was he right about that?

Reichert: No. I think he's totally wrong. All the evidence was, and we tried to show this in the film, that the management people, the management team, the HR people, the vice presidents, they all tried really hard to accommodate the Chinese and make that plant work. But the chairman felt — I mean, it's his perspective — that there was hostility to Chinese. I think that's his baggage as a 70-some-year-old man coming from China. Everybody has their culture and history, their cultural perspective. But we put it in there because that's how he felt.

As you said earlier, there's a lot of unexpected humor in this film. Was there a particular moment where you began to observe the comic and sometimes surreal nature of the cultural collision between Chinese people and American people? 

Bognar: Well, there's a moment we filmed that didn't make the final cut, because we didn't do a good job shooting it. It happened early on, at the first big party they threw, where they had karaoke. Part of what goes into a film is it has to be filmed with competence. One reason the film looks good is not because we are great camerapeople, it's because we shot 1,200 hours of footage and we had a great editor! But there was a barbecue where we filmed a Chinese guy singing karaoke. They had big speakers, and it was filling the room. So there's this Chinese guy on this little stage, singing to a big group that's mixed American and Chinese. And the Americans, of course, are like African American, white, Hispanic.

And the Chinese guy is singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads." When he gets to the chorus and he's singing "West Virginia, mountain mama," — this sort of rough-around-the-edges, burly American starts singing along. Here you've got this Chinese guy, with a definite Chinese accent, singing this '70s country hit and these burly Americans start joining in, and we're like, "Holy cow, this is beautiful." It's just been announced that this film is going to be on the Criterion Collection. I think we're going to try to squeeze that in as a DVD extra.

So that was when we realized the potential for delight and surprise in this journey of trying to make this movie.

Reichert: It's kind of like the fishing scene, you remember that? That's one that Jeff shot, I think. Jeff Reichert, our nephew, who's a cameraperson and a producer. He was like, "Look, I don't speak Mandarin Chinese, but I'm going to go hang out with these guys as they go fishing on Sunday." I said, "Well, how are you going to talk to them?" And he said, "Yeah, when guys hang out they don't talk that much anyway."

I saw the film with my 15-year-old daughter, who's a big movie nut, but she didn't have any idea what to expect, seeing a documentary called "American Factory." She loved it, so that's the focus group report. But one of the things we talked about afterwards was that if you were doing a narrative feature based on this scenario and you wrote that big party scene in China in your screenplay, everybody would be like, "No way. Come on, that's ridiculous."

Bognar: That's true for so much of documentary. If you watch documentaries, they're meant to be that moment after moment that if you scripted it, the audience would go, "Oh, that's too unbelievable." And we felt that. I mean, when those American guys, those big burly guys start dancing to "YMCA," we just couldn't believe it. And it's so beautiful. And so that's a wonderful clash of sensibilities and culture. But you can't script that stuff.

Reichert: I don't know if you saw the film "Bathtubs Over Broadway," but not that many decades ago in the U.S., companies like General Electric and other big companies would have these yearly pageants where they would hire dancers and singers to make up plays and songs, sort of like Broadway shows, about the company and about the year the company had. It's one of those examples, to me, of the way these two countries are at different places in their history. 

That's one thing the Chinese co-producers helped us understand, through things they suggested that we read and talking about their own background in China. The two countries, it's not just about they're out to get us or whatever. We're in different places in our history. So the culture, the people there, feels different. Chinese people are very excited about the rise of their country, the Chinese workers. And I don't think you could say there are a lot of American blue-collar workers who are excited about their country. I think they're feeling beaten down.

People were more excited when I was growing up. I grew up in a union family, and after World War II, but even into the '60s and '70s, it was like our country was on the rise. Now it feels so hollow when you hear it: We're the greatest country in the world. But that's what we say and what they say. They feel China's the greatest country in the world. 

Bognar: American working people have lost so much, and they're trying to hold on. And it's a very different trajectory. It's almost like the trajectories are crisscrossing, China's and America's.

The contemporary drama of the presidential election in 2016 is sort of mentioned in passing in your film. But I felt like "American Factory" actually helps illustrate why the 2016 election turned out the way it did, and why those of us who live on the coasts shouldn't have been so surprised. Do you endorse that view at all? 

Bognar: Yes. Actually, I feel like "The Last Truck," our earlier film, which is available on HBO, even more so captures the moment that set the stage for Donald Trump to win the Midwest. If you say to people the things that President Trump said: "Don't move, keep your house, jobs are coming back to Ohio," and he said it in a persuasive way, enough that people took a chance on him. Even if they don't identify as Republicans, there's enough Ohio voters that are going to take a chance on this guy.

Reichert: One of the things people repeatedly say in "The Last Truck," sometimes with tears in their eyes, people who are about to lose their job at the General Motors plant — a good job, a secure job, a safe job that gives them a middle-class existence — they say, "We got to get jobs back to America again. Let's make it here, let's buy it here." They talk about Walmart. It used to be Walmart was all about American goods. Now you can't even find American goods in Walmart.

Bognar: They feel like America has been betrayed somehow by — what? The politicians, the big guys. They don't perceive Donald Trump as a big billionaire. They see him more as a pugnacious guy who is outrageous and is going to fight for them. "From now on it's America first." That resonates with people. We live in Dayton, right? We live in the Midwest, and that kind of argument or comment is persuasive to people around us.

Reichert: At least emotionally. "Yeah, he says he's going to bring our jobs back. He's not an internationalist. We've had it with them, look what they did to us." It's not necessarily logical, but emotionally it makes sense.

You have a brief but fascinating segment shot in China in the film. Were there things you saw in China that you were not allowed to film?

Reichert: Actually, it's funny you ask. When we were arranging to go, we talked to filmmakers who had worked in China earlier, and there was this sense that, oh, they might take your equipment, they might take your laptops. Don't ever try to film on the street because the cops will come right up to you. Well, we didn't see any of that. We filmed on the street quite a bit, though you don't see much of it in the film. We filmed with tripods on the street, sometimes.

Bognar: Maybe part of this is that we were filming in Putian, which is in Fujian province. It's kind of like the Dayton, Ohio, of China, meaning not a big city, not even a second-tier city, but what they call a third-tier city. We were like a novelty, and I don't think we raised any red flags. The company did try to set us up to interview handpicked people that they wanted us to talk to. We did do some of those interviews, but they don't appear in the film.

Then, while we were walking around with the Americans in the Chinese factories, we would slip away with our Chinese producers and then interview people we picked, Chinese workers we'd picked out. Those are the interviews you see in the factory.

Reichert: This is kind of a funny thing. When we were in Putian, which is of course way, way bigger than Dayton. It's bigger than Cincinnati. It's 3 million people, I think. So when I got there I wanted to send a postcard home. I started asking, "Where can I get a postcard that shows something of Putian?" Because in Dayton or you name it, any medium-sized city in the U.S., there's going to be postcards. You know what? They have no postcards. They said they used to have them but nobody bought them. The whole time we were there, which was about two weeks, I don't remember seeing a single white person other than the people we were with. There were no tourists. It's very different than going to Shanghai or Beijing. No postcards, no white people.

You've talked about your relationship with Chairman Cao of Fuyao, who is such a pivotal character and becomes one of the film's biggest surprises. Why did he allow you such amazing access? Because a lot of CEOs in America would never do that.

Bognar: Well, a lot of credit goes to our co-producer, Mijie Li. Mijie is a young Chinese filmmaker, she makes her own movies and she came on board our team. We had already done five or six interviews with the chairman, and we spent a lot of time with him. And one thing is that he could always see our hustle. He walks fast when he goes through that factory, and we of course are running and walking backwards with heavy equipment on our shoulders. I think he liked our hustle, he could see how hungry we were. 

But then when Mijie came on board the team, she started doing the interviews with the chairman. At first we would ask her to translate back and forth, every question and every answer. But that was so cumbersome and so slow, it was a flaw for everybody. Pretty quickly we said to Mijie, "Just talk to the chairman, just have a conversation." And she built a real rapport with him, almost like a grandfather-granddaughter kind of rapport. And when the chairman is reflecting on his life at the end and saying all those intimate things, that is Mijie and the chairman alone, with only an audio recorder. Actually, we were in the room, but there's no camera and we're not asking Mijie to translate. It's just her and the chairman, sitting there in his office in China talking on an intimate level. She's got the ability to help create a space where people can be reflective.

Reichert: I also think the fact that he and I are the same exact age, within one month, had something to do with it. I think the chairman — there's a way in which his life is a little sad. I mean, yes, he's a billionaire, he has anything he wants. But he's surrounded by yes men. He's surrounded by people who will do what he says. I think we came along quietly, sat him down, we did many interviews with him, as Steve said, we asked him about his family, we asked him about difficulties he was facing. We asked him what keeps him up at night.

Bognar: We asked him about Buddhism, about his life philosophy.

Reichert: Like documentarians do. And I think he opened up to us more than many people would. He believes in transparency. That song they sing, at the big party, about transparency? He wrote that song.

"American Factory," which is nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, is currently available to stream on Netflix.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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