Many have argued that Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ immensely powerful For Sama, and not the winner Steven Bognar and Julia Reichart’s American Factory, should have been awarded Best Documentary earlier this year at the Academy Awards. Two films about larger-than-life conflicts that seek to test an unstoppable ruler but in wholly separate contexts, it can be amusing to see how documentaries – beyond their form from the conventional features of a film – can still play a major role in many conversations.
Comparing the two films on their respective merits is like comparing oranges to eggplants – not only does it not make any sense, there’s barely any decent thesis statement to generate after. But even if American Factory’s win became rumored to be politicized because of having big figures as its producers, failing to discuss the story the documentary longs to discuss immediately defeats its purpose.
In the documentary, glass Chinese company Fuyao branched out to the United States as a part of their brand’s expansion globally. Their founder Cao Dewang sees the move as an opportunity to connect the communities of the two regions, hoping for a better bond in the workplace. But Dewang’s aspirations are largely different from his American employees.
American Factory banks on the clash of its two cultures, confided by the dissimilarity of Americans and the Chinese’s set of principles on the workplace. When the directors Bognar and Reichart started to visit Fuyao’s Chinese branch, they were surprised to learn that the workload itself was heavier than what the Americans do. The Chinese labor force was obliged to work for seven days a week; home visits once or twice a month being a luxury.
Themes of differences and parallelism play a major role in American Factory – the final shot depicting an image of workers walking in different directions, never intersecting. More than its diverse set of workforce, the documentary also seeks to examine the different faces of capitalism.
Here, capitalism was represented by both the corporate heads and on-ground workers, all prying on their ambitions for success. It is a neutral take on such a tough subject matter, where villains only come in whichever side of the coin you are on.
American Factory can be problematic, but it’s an outstanding critique of why singularity is a far-fetched concept at this point.