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'American Factory': When A Chinese Company Takes Over An Ohio Factory


What happens when a Chinese company opens up shop in an Ohio factory town?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where you sit today used to be a General Motors plant. And now there are over 1,000 employees working here.


KING: In a new documentary called "American Factory," co-directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar follow management and workers as a Chinese automotive glass company opens a new factory in Dayton, Ohio. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans saw the movie. Hey, Eric. Thanks for being here.


KING: This movie starts with a familiar premise. American manufacturing is on the decline, something needs to replace it. In this movie, a Chinese company comes in and intends to do just that.

DEGGANS: Yeah. It actually shows how complex something that sounds simple would actually work. On its face, it sounds like something wonderful. A Chinese company is going to spend $500 million to revitalize this shuttered General Motors plant, bring back all these jobs that had left this community. But what ends up happening is there's a clash between work cultures. Chinese workers think the Americans are lazy and don't grasp the training fast enough. And the American workers feel they're not respected by the Chinese and that the Chinese don't have appropriate regard for environmental and safety regulations.

And so what ends up happening is a lot of the high-ranking Americans get dismissed and they're replaced by Chinese workers. And the company - the factory begins to operate much more like a Chinese plant. And these workers that had so much optimism suddenly find that they're in a job that's much different than they imagined. And we have a clip of one worker talking about that. Let's check it out.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The conditions are not favorable - doing the same thing over and over again. And so it's - you think about whether you have the stamina and the will to do this type of job.

KING: One thing that's really interesting about this movie is that former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama have their name on this movie in a sense because it was produced by their production company Higher Ground. Do we know anything about how involved they were?

DEGGANS: Well, the filmmakers have been very upfront about saying that this film was completed before the Obamas got involved. Essentially they're placing their imprimatur on it. And I assume they're going to be used to market and spread word about it. But it is the first release that's going to come out on Netflix as part of this larger deal that the Obamas have with Netflix. And so you've got to wonder why they chose to attach their name to this story. You know, if I had to guess, I would say it's because this story reveals how complex these economic issues really are.

And in an odd way, it's a rebuke to people who think it's simple to say, you know, let's stop globalism or let's just bring in a Chinese company and have them pay for a plant and everything will work out fine. And these people have wound up in jobs where, you know - when they worked for GM, they made $30 an hour. And instead, they're making $14 an hour in a company where they don't feel as valued. So even though someone saved the plant, they didn't necessarily end up with the kind of plant they expected.

KING: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.