Why I Had A Hard Time Watching American Factory

Karin Chien
Jan 8 · 5 min read

This is not what you may think. First things first: as an indie film producer, I know how hard it is to make a film. I commend the filmmaking team of American Factory on making a compelling, highly watchable documentary that is sparking dialogue. I was excited to watch when it appeared on Netflix. Its premise is storytelling gold — a Chinese billionaire re-opens a shuttered GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. The tragic moments are handled gracefully. The American workers are granted a deep humanity that moved me to a deeper empathy.

As an American viewer, as a distributor of Chinese documentaries, as someone who feels wholly American but often gets asked “but what are you, really,” I watched the film with high hopes. I watched the film a second time with my partner, a former auto factory worker who’s traveled and worked in China. His reaction to the scenes in China were similar to mine. So, after the second viewing, I accepted the film for what it is. A terrific expression of the point of view of its filmmakers, led by directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, from Dayton Ohio.

Yet there are number of reviews and write-ups that claim the film is a balanced or equal portrayal of American and Chinese workers. And audiences at film festivals applaud this balance. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post names American Factory as her #1 movie of 2019, remarking that the film “transcends unhelpful (and inaccurate) binaries.”

In the film, what we see of China is exclusively through the American workers’ eyes, shaped deeply by the filmmakers’ point of view. There’s a prolonged scene of a Chinese New Year banquet and a tour of the Chinese factory complete with work ritual performances. From the film’s point of view, these scenes are startling, funny, and to any American who’s never been to China, super weird.

I’ll be the first to agree that reality in China can be surreal. I distribute independent Chinese documentaries in which absurdism is a prevailing storytelling logic. DISORDER by Huang Weikai is a brilliant example. When you’re in China, there’s an impulse to point your camera and just start filming, because daily reality feels beyond your imagination. One Chinese fiction writer dubbed it “Ultra-Unreal Realism.” It can be funny and deeply unsettling. It can also become a means to spectacle. These scenes in American Factory make me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, about how spectacular images inhibit authentic connection.

I couldn’t help but worry about this disconnect while watching the film. Will American audiences perceive Chinese workers as having less soul? As more….. robotic? Less human than… ? A read through American social media echoes some of these thoughts. What kind of people get married in a group ceremony at a corporate banquet, argues a Twitter consensus.

In reviews by well-known American critics, these scenes of spectacle are highlighted and their expected extrapolations made:

“For viewers who have never peered inside a Chinese factory, these scenes — with their singalongs, team-building exercises and extravagant pageants — may seem strange…” — Manohla Dargis, NY Times

“What comes increasingly into focus as time goes by is that Americans and Chinese have very different ideas about the nature of work…The Chinese, for instance, accept regimentation while Americans cling to individuality…” — Kenneth Turan, LA Times

“I was thinking, Why the hell are factory drones in communist-totalitarian China paying tribute to transparency? when I got it. Transparent … glass … The irony probably never occurred to them.” — David Edelstein, Vulture

By privileging spectacle over scenes of say labor activism, the film misses an extraordinary opportunity to create a radical solidarity. Particularly at a time of mega-consolidation in corporate America, especially in Hollywood. And here’s the thing. There is at least one documentary, with several others in production, made by Chinese filmmakers & activists, about Chinese labor organizing. It’s called We the Workers, and it was made at great risk. It’s an absolutely essential film. It’s the kind of film I think would interest the filmmakers of American Factory. These films counter, or at least complicate, American Factory’s union-vote-as-cultural-difference narrative. And they force one to ask:

WE THE WORKERS.

Do American audiences watching American Factory know that Chinese workers also fight for better working conditions?

Did the filmmakers want to include those scenes and were dissuaded (censored)?

Was it more accurate to the directors’ point of view not to include knowledge about collective bargaining in China? For example, did the filmmakers ask Chinese workers about labor organizing in China, or did they assume there wasn’t any?

This assumption, that Chinese workers can’t or don’t stand up for better working conditions, shows up in many reviews:

“Fuyao has clearly never had to deal with worker pushback before.” — David Sims, The Atlantic

“What happens when an American labor force grounded in the values of collective bargaining and strong health and safety standards confronts younger colleagues schooled in the discipline and punishing self-denial of China’s command-control form of capitalism?” — Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post

“The thought of [unions in China] objecting to or impeding the management of a state-sanctioned company is unthinkable.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian

Nowadays our original mission at dGenerate Films — a company I co-founded, currently in partnership with Icarus Films — is harder. We started the company to distribute uncensored films about China made by filmmakers living in China. Censorship now controls nearly all filmmaking in mainland China. In the US, a shrinking handful of corporations control nearly all the distribution mechanisms. We’re seeing the consolidation of attention and the globalization of fewer, rather than more, perspectives. The powers that control distribution can (and will) privilege certain points of view over all others.

There was a time Netflix acquired and streamed the uncensored Chinese documentaries in the dGenerate Films collection. The license fee of $2500 was split between the filmmakers and paying delivery expenses. It was extraordinary for films blocked in China to be accessible to the rest of the world. At that time, Netflix presented a multiplicity of Chinese points of views as valuable and as necessary as American Factory’s.

With their shift to originals, to creating IP and a library of their own, Netflix stopped acquiring our titles. We work to fill the gap for audiences interested in Chinese points of views. We stream We the Workers directly on the Icarus website. We make our films available on Amazon. We joined 11 indie distributors to start a collective streaming platform — Ovid.tv.

If anything, this is a plea for the American distribution apparatus — from filmmakers to programmers to critics to audiences — to be interested in other points of views. There is still opportunity to create radical solidarity. What if, for example, the filmmakers of American Factory, or other “Netflix originals,” advocated on behalf of their peers? What if filmmakers organized and negotiated terms that helped protect the global filmmaking community? Is collective bargaining of independent storytelling creators vis-a-vis the streamers achievable?

American and Chinese audiences face a similar challenge: in a landscape controlled by government-mandated censorship and corporate-driven consolidation, how do audiences gain access to a multiplicity of points of view?

Interested? Sign up here to join the fight for distribution equity.

This piece arose out of conversations with Lawrence Ribeiro, Abby Sun, Gary Chou, Amy Hobby, Jonathan Miller, J.P. Sniadecki, and A-Doc (Asian American Documentary Network), for whom I am very grateful.

Also linked here.