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REVIEW: ‘American Factory’ asks hard questions, finds beauty in answers

Published: Sunday, August 18, 2019 @ 6:50 PM

Fuyao Global Founder and Chairman Cho Tak Wong, in a scene from “American Factory.” CONTRIBUTED
Fuyao Global Founder and Chairman Cho Tak Wong, in a scene from “American Factory.” CONTRIBUTED

Before “American Factory” became President and Mrs. Obama’s first Netflix documentary, it was the quiet local project of award-winning Yellow Springs-based filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar.

For months, Reichert and Bognar (and their colleagues) filmed a story now familiar to Dayton but perhaps new and strange to others — tracking how a Chinese billionaire bought a shuttered General Motors factory in Moraine and transformed it into what is now the largest complex in the world devoted to producing automotive safety glass, with some 2,300 American and 200 Chinese workers.

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Filled with stark beauty and pain from the first frame, the story picks up from “The Last Truck,” the HBO film that earned Reichert and Bognar a 2010 Academy Award nomination for best documentary, short subject. There, the duo told the story of thousands of workers stranded by GM’s December 2008 plant closure.

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With Fuyao, much of Reichert and Bognar’s early work starts on the periphery, but lucky viewers can see at the Victoria Theatre Monday night — at the film’s Dayton premiere — just how close and intimate their access to the story of Fuyao Glass America became. (The film streams on Netflix starting Wednesday.)

 

An omnipresent film crew took smart advantage of access to anguished meetings with injured employees, close-ups of angry managers and bewildered workers trying to learn not only how to make glass but how to communicate.

Their cameras were on the factory floor as abortive early production attempts resulted in exploding windshields. They are in the room as Fuyao Chairman and Founder Cho Tak Wong muses about closing the plant if workers approve creating a United Auto Workers bargaining unit in 2017.

And they were in a conference room when Jeff Liu, Fuyao Glass America president, advises Chinese colleagues in Mandarin that Americans enjoy flattery. Liu asks Chinese workers to share with Americans their “wisdom.”

“Because we are better than they are,” Liu says of his American colleagues.

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Reichert and Bognar (who are not only colleagues but life partners) stand by the accuracy of the subtitled translations through the film, saying they worked (in Reichert’s words) with a “bevy of translators” to put the Chinese language into English.

We also get a prolonged look at the furious reaction of Americans and Chinese to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s public endorsement of a then-early unionization effort at the plant during an opening celebration in October 2016.

Some Chinese managers denounce Brown’s call, and Dave Burrows, a former Fuyao plant executive, responds with more than one memorable line that’s sure to be quoted — and a pledge to keep Brown and his staff from visiting the plant again.

Bognar and Reichert say Cho himself and the Chinese principals made no effort to derail, alter or edit out anything in this unsparring documentary. And Burrows has since mended fences with Brown’s staff, the filmmakers said in an interview.

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“There were things they didn’t like, but they knew they were real,” Reichert said of the overall reaction to “American Factory.”

Said Bognar, “They have been very gracious about it.”

One watches “American Factory” and comes away with an understanding of why the film has won so many honors — and why prospective distribution partners launched a bidding war for the rights to the film.

In the end, the Obamas gave their considerable imprimatur to the work, cemented by a partnership with Netflix and Participant Media.

Said Reichert: “We had a lot of suitors. It was exciting.”

The result is a beautifully rendered one-hour 49-minute documentary, edited painstakingly from more than 1,200 hours of footage, striking notes both sad and hopeful and grappling with questions not easily answered.

HOW TO GO:

Dayton viewing of ‘American Factory’

7 p.m. Monday

Victoria Theatre

138 N Main St., Dayton

Passes are no longer available. A waitlist for tickets is here.