American Factory: a review

Five stars.

I rarely feel ‘transported’ by a film or documentary, but with American Factory I was a fly on the wall.

There’s no voice over, no opinion layered on top, no one telling me how to feel about what I’m watching. The only thing that broke the spell for me was the occasional piece of slightly-overcooked mood-matching music informing me that I was witnessing something poignant or irreverent. Other than that, it’s a matter of “here’s some stuff that happened”.

I’ve been reflecting on why I liked this film so much (and why everyone else did too). It’s interesting, but not a particularly compelling story — I mean, nothing much happens. There are no larger-than-life characters, no dramatic turns of events, it’s all rather pedestrian.

Yet still, thoroughly enjoyable, and I think the reason for this is not pretty: it confirms my prejudices.

The common thread to the story is that western workers are inferior in ability to eastern workers despite/because of their confidence and sense of entitlement.

This is a dangerous prejudice (for me) because it’s a prejudice against my own group (westerners) so I can convince myself it’s OK. But secretly I exclude myself from the negative assessment, so actually it’s a prejudice just like any other. And just like any other, it’s based on generalisations that can’t possibly be true for everyone in the group, and so is unfair and — worse — illogical.

In one scene, a gaggle of Americans walk into a conference room in China, one wearing a baseball cap, one unable to fit his hefty frame in his high-vis vest. Meanwhile, the locals are well dressed, slim, and polite.

I loved this scene, it beautifully portrayed the differences in the culture. In other words, it confirmed my stereotypes. But of course I wouldn’t wear a baseball cap to a meeting. And I’m not overweight. These people are like me, but not me.

This film allows me to look down upon my own group, that stirs something warm and comfortable within me. It’s an easy feeling. Virtuous and superior all at once.

None of this is criticism of the film — at no point will it cram the juxtaposition down your throat — it’s criticism of myself. Maybe it’s criticism of you, too. Maybe we’re all terrible. Maybe it’s a film about the inescapability of prejudice. Just when you thought you were woke, it turns out that you have unreasonable prejudices against other groups— they just happen to be similar enough to you that you didn’t notice.

Maybe this film demonstrates that stereotypes are correct in some cases, but asks of you: so what? What can you do with the information that some Americans are entitled slackers and some Chinese will work 12 x 6 without complaint. Replace the word ‘some’ with ‘many’, it makes no difference, of what use is the generalisation?

I wonder, if you split viewers into two groups: Asians and Westerners (if you’ll forgive the terms), then split them again: racist against the other side and not, what would their takeaways from the film be? I think there’d be something in it for everyone.

Such is the neutrality of the film that you’re left to pick and choose the pieces that reinforce what you already knew. I think this is the secret to its success.

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