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Home | Film & TV

Openness seen as key to American Factory's Oscar award

By Hong?Xiao?in?New?York and?Xu?Fan?in?Beijing | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-12 07:00

This image released by Netflix shows Wong He (left), working with Kenny Taylor (center) and Jarred Gibson in the furnace tempering area of the Fuyao Glass America factory in Dayton, Ohio, in the documentary film, American Factory. The film debuted on Wednesday on Netflix as the streaming service’s first project backed by Barack and Michelle Obama’s new production company. [Photo/Agencies]

When a husband-and-wife team wanted to make a documentary on a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio, the company provided them open access.

Perhaps it was that unfiltered look at Fuyao Glass America in Moraine, Ohio, that helped motivate members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award the film American Factory the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature on Sunday.

The documentary garnered heightened publicity in April 2019, after it was acquired by former United States president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama's production company Higher Ground as the company's first project, in partnership with Netflix.

The film tells the story of Fuyao's first automotive-glass factory in the US, which was set up at a shuttered General Motors plant in 2015, employing 2,000 local blue-collar workers. Fuyao, the largest auto-glass manufacturer in the world, is based in Fuqing, Fujian province.

"I think it's a worthy win, and in some ways I was surprised in watching the film that some of the people on the Chinese side, including the CEO of the Chinese corporation, was so open in his remarks. All of that made it into the film," said Stanley Rosen, a political-science professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on Chinese film.

The film details the difficulties stemming from cultural clashes between Chinese management and technicians and US workers at the company, providing a window on the impact of globalization in the workplace.

The Academy Award went to co-directors Julia Reichert and Ste-ven Bognar, a couple living in Dayton, Ohio, and producer Jeff Reichert.

"Our film is from Ohio and China," Julia Reichert said in her acceptance speech. "But it really could be from anywhere that people put on a uniform and punch a clock, trying to make their families have a better life."

Bognar expressed his gratitude in his speech, especially thanking the chairman of Fuyao Group in Chinese.

"Thank you, Academy. Xie xie (thank you), Cho Tak Wong (Cao Dewang). Thank you to everyone who trusted us to tell your story," he said.

China Daily also interviewed Cao about the film in January, as he made an annual visit to the Fuyao plant in Ohio.

He said that over three years, the production crew was granted complete access to Fuyao's plants in Ohio and China, "no matter if I was in a meeting or giving a speech", adding that the directors recorded 1,300 hours of life at Fuyao.

Cao stressed that one of the key elements of Fuyao's successful operation in the US is "openness".

"We don't hide anything," he said. "I made a promise when I landed in Ohio, if (anyone in the US) wants to know the state of China's industry, just come here, that's my promise."

"We Chinese and Americans have come together so much in the past five years," Carrie Yount, FGA technical supervisor, told China Daily.

"I think we all made such progress to start off, sweeping the floors and getting things built to now. I would say we are family," said Yount, who has worked at FGA for more than four years.

The Obamas tweeted to congratulate the American Factory team for the Oscar win.

"Congrats to Julia and Steven, the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change. Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground's first release," Barack Obama wrote after the award was announced.

"I think that film (American Factory) presented a very balanced and a very thoughtful look at the impact that globalization has both in the US and in China. It kind of symbolizes what's going in a lot of the rest of the world," said Robert D. Cain, award-winning screenwriter and producer.

The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in late January last year, has garnered 8.3 points out of 10 on Douban, China's most popular review aggregator.

Zhang Chen, a Shanghai-based film investor, said that American Factory made a splash last summer.

The documentary has reduced Chinese and American cliched impressions of each other, he said, providing a down-to-earth look at the business cultures of both countries.

Li Chao, a Shenzhen-based film critic, said American Factory takes a neutral perspective in depicting US workers and Chinese investors, and it shows their respective shortcomings.

Liu Yinmeng in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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