The Netflix documentary American Factory explores what happened after a Chinese billionaire purchased an abandoned factory in Ohio, turning it from a General Motors plant into an auto glass manufacturing facility. Though the opportunity was a positive one at first, conflict soon resulted. But if you're wondering how you missed this story on the news, it could be because American Factory was filmed several years ago.
In fact, this doc was a decade in the making. Filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert first followed the closing of the GM factory in 2008's The Last Truck. They picked up in the same spot when the Chinese company Fuyao purchased the space in 2014. It seems like Bognar and Reichert got in there early enough to capture much of the emerging tension. As Dayton, Ohio natives themselves (the factory is outside Dayton in Moraine, per the A.V. Club) who had already been involved with this particular factory, they were in the perfect position to investigate the story early on.
And they ended up capturing 1,200 hours of footage, according to The Chicago Tribune. That footage came from months of filming and had to be edited into a cohesive film, which likely accounts for the time that passed between the 2014 start date and the 2019 release date.
It seems like Bognar and Reichert were intrigued by Fuyao's purchase of the plant from early on, though they didn't know exactly what direction the project would take. Reichert told The Chicago Tribune that she and Bognar were well-aware that tension between China and the U.S. was "a big story in the 21st century." Such a huge news item coming to their small town was fascinating to them. "Whatever is going to happen is going to be interesting," Reichert said. "But we really didn't know what to expect."
The more they thought about it, the more questions they had. They wondered if the factory would succeed and what that success would look like, especially since success for the workers might have been very different from the success the owner envisioned. In those early days, they had no idea where the film was going to go, but they arrived quickly enough to get the whole story and figure out how to shape it.
And spending so much time with their subjects caused Reichert's perspective to shift. She explained that initially, her heart was with the American workers because she and Bognar identified with them. But learning more about the Chinese workers who had relocated to Ohio caused the film's focus to expand. "Pretty soon, we started realizing that there were hundreds of Chinese workers in the factory who were also blue-collar workers but who didn't speak English, who had never been to America, had never been anywhere," Reichert said. "And we started thinking, Wow, what are their lives like?"
Spending so much time at the plant and following every new development gave the filmmakers greater insight into what was happening. After years of work, they were able to turn that expansive story into American Factory. And now you get to see it.
American Factory is currently available on Netflix.