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Overcoming Barriers

Inside the Fuyao Glass America factory in Dayton, Ohio, on July 27 (XINHUA)

Oscar-nominated American writer-director duo Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's East-meets-West documentary American Factory, the first film produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions, puts the spotlight on Fuyao Glass America, the auto glass maker that bought General Motors' abandoned plant in Dayton, Ohio, and started its own factory there in 2015. The documentary, which won the directing award for U.S. documentary at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in February, follows workers' lives in the factory as the Chinese management and American workers struggled to overcome language barriers and cultural differences. At a pre-release screening of the film at Betaworks Studios, New York City, on August 5, the filmmakers talked about why they made the film and the reaction so far. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows: 

What inspired you to make the film? 

Julia Reichert (Director): We didn't think of any others when we started making this film, our hearts were with the blue-collar workers of Dayton, Ohio, because when the economy crashed, it was extremely frightening in our town. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, it was crushing and devastating. The bottom fell out of people's whole sense of who they were and their future. 

So we kept following those people, people who learned to reinvent themselves. Dayton is our hometown. When the tectonic plates of the world were shifting economically, we had a piece of that right in our own hometown. So why did we need to go anywhere else to make a film? And why did we need to find other people? We already knew a lot of people and we followed their lives. 

Steven Bognar (Director): [When Fuyao Glass America arrived,] we pretty quickly realized there's a huge other story going on, and that the folks who came over from China were not going to see their kids for two years, landing in this weird little place called Dayton, Ohio. They have a big story as well. 

And even the management folks, the American and Chinese leadership, they're trying to do something colossal on this site and really richly symbolic. And we realized that we don't speak Mandarin and need to build a team to tell the story. Jeff (Jeff Reichert, producer) joined us and then we met two Chinese filmmakers who joined the team. They became full producers and co-producers and were in Ohio every month with us, spending time with all the Chinese community of this factory because we realized we're going to try to make a film where the points of view shift. You are going through the experience of the assembly line and the leadership and their frustrations and the Chinese experience and the American experience. What we were trying to do was to put everyone in these multiple points of view and stir it around. 

How did you get unlimited access to the factory? 

Julia Reichert: Imagine an American company, a big company like that, allowing in two independent filmmakers with all their people for three years. Will that happen? Probably not. So I have to give credit to the chairman [of Fuyao Glass, Cao Dewang]. He bought that plant because it was an iconic American plant and he wanted to bring life back to our community. He had good intentions and I think some of the things that happened have to do with cultures not understanding each other. That caused lots of hard feelings and a sense of lack of respect on the part of workers. It's just different management styles, different teaching styles, different work styles. 

Jeff Reichert (Producer): Getting the access was not the hardest part, it was the maintenance of the access. Gaining the trust and continually working. Over the three years we met with the chairman every time he was in Dayton and I think a lot of the interviews were not really always about what's going on at the plant. Julia and the chairman really created a relationship, [they are] about the same age. They've got these great conversations about their lives reflecting back and looking at the past. 

I think that led to us being able to get more things inside the plant but also being invited to China. We were really surprised that if you ask people from Beijing or Shanghai what Fuqing (Fuyao Glass's China headquarters) is like, they say it is a really small town. But it's 10 times the size of Dayton and way more urban and way more modern. And that totally threw me for a loop when we arrived there because I thought we were going to go to the village essentially. But it was not. 

How has the film been received so far among the Fuyao Glass staff? 

Julia Reichert: They were very generous about it. We were surprised. We were kind of shaking in our boots in the office of Jeff Liu, CEO of Fuyao Glass America. But he said, "Wow, we learned so much from your film. In a way we made mistakes and we should correct them. And we want our Chinese management, all of them, to see this film." So it was really amazing. 

Steven Bognar: And then the chairman finally saw it just a month ago (July) and he also had a real generosity of spirit about it. He didn't love everything in the film, obviously, but they have been great about it so far. It's hard to imagine an American corporation having that same gratitude. I feel like the chairman is very much a maverick. He's in the latter parts of his career. He trusts his own gut a lot more than he worries about what's proper or not. 

How did this film become part of Barack and Michelle Obama's Higher Ground Productions? 

Jeff Reichert: They were interested in the kind of the story that was told. Michelle's father used to work in factories, so it was made for her on that level. The former president of the United States, he's obviously interested in workers, the future of work. Even though this is not necessarily an optimistic story, it's a complicated story. I think they were interested in its complexities and all the different kinds of things that we were able to show in the space of one place. 

Julia Reichert: I think our former president saw lots of policy implications as well as personal stories of everyday Americans. 

Chinese investment in the U.S. was rising: Chinese entrepreneurs buying shuttered American factories. You guys might not be as aware of it because it's all over the Midwest and the South. If you look up textile in South Carolina where all of our companies left 20 years ago, guess who bought them? Chinese folks. There are 24 or 25 Chinese-owned textile factories in South Carolina. There are factories all over Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan, which are bought by Chinese. It's a reality. 

Steven Bognar: But it also dropped off suddenly after the election. 

At the end of the discussion, the panelists agreed that learning how to work with global cultures is the only way to get the work done. But they also reminded the audience that one third of the population is at a high risk of having their jobs greatly disrupted by automation. The ones who would be hurt most in the face of automation, job loss and low wages are people already making the least. And in the U.S., that refers to mostly African Americans. They called for doubling down on efforts to train workers and give them education. 

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