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“American Factory” chronicles modern labor and callous capitalism

Wednesday, February 19, Union South Marquee, 6:30 p.m., free. Info

Newly minted as an Oscar-winner for Best Documentary, American Factory (2019) has a lot on its mind. Drawing on a long and decorated career spent studying American labor and progressive movements, the filmmaking team of Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar used their charter funding from the Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, to make not just a film about American factories, but the film about American factories.

Reichert and Bognar set out to explore Fuyao, an archetypal factory in Moraine, Ohio. A Chinese-owned glass manufacturing company whose latest branch occupies the carcass of a former GM plant in Ohio (whose closing was the subject of another Oscar-nominated film by Reichert and Bognar), Fuyao is a multinational business interest that shapeshifts depending on its host. As this new Ohio operation settles into production over the course of a year, its owners grow increasingly worried at the prospect of workers unionizing as well as the struggle to reconcile vastly different workplace expectations between their American and Chinese employees.

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Moving through a variety of subjects and settings, the film sometimes seems like it’s packing a short series worth of information into a feature. The complexities of Fuyao’s operation offer a breadth of material, with the focus bouncing between struggling employees’ somber monologues and cringe comedy-like scenes of tongue-tied executives utterly failing at connecting with their workers. Thankfully, Reichert and Bognar’s shrewdness as documentarians makes this all work well together. With Reichert herself now entering her sixth decade of filmmaking, her understanding of American labor is unparalleled.

Their focus on Fuyao here presents a new direction for their work, as globalization changes our understanding of labor and what it means to belong to a distinct national identity. The title may also call to mind a golden age of reliable factory jobs in “Rust Belt” towns, but it rather brings the viewer up-to-date with a bleak reality: when other signifiers fade away, ruthless capitalism continues to be endemic to American life. The fact that Reichert and Bognar can hide that particular thesis in a documentary that’s still able to entertain speaks to their considerable skill, and marks American Factory as a deserving award-winner.

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