Thursday, March 07, 2019

True/False 2019: Scenes from the Resistance

American Factory (2019)

There are always countervailing narratives at True/False (and, I imagine, at other documentary festivals). For every apocalyptic cautionary tale, there is an account of people resisting the horrors of their times. This year was no different. These kinds of films provide an uplift if you've just seen some of the dystopian nightmares presented in other films. Usually. Sometimes they're ambivalent.

American Factory (2019, directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichart) provides an ambiguous portrait of the post-industiral heartland, as it depicts a Chinese billionaire moving his business into an abandoned GM factory in Dayton, Ohio. The clash between the Chinese way of doing business and the expectations of American workers provides the drama, and the Maguffin that drives the engine of the story is the specter of the workers organizing to join the UAW. That is something the Chinese do not want.

This is a study in contrasts, and the sort of thing that used to flare up when the Japanese and the Germans were the straw competitors for American industry back in the 1970s and 80s. The villains change, but America stays the same. What is different here is that China is likely to be the dominant power of the current century, and if that is true, then it behooves us to see how the new boss likes things to be arranged. Mostly, they favor the unfettered capitalism of the old bosses.

The film follows the opening of a new auto glass factory by Fuyao America, and at first, it seems like there will be a meeting of minds. There are Chinese employees imported to get things up and running in the Chinese manner, but the main workforce, including the executives just below the Chairman are all Americans and all veterans of GM. As the plant runs up against American regulations and OSHA and as production falls behind what the Chairman expects, those American executives are slowly replaced. A group of the American workers is taken to China to tour the facility there, and the contrast between the casually dressed, often slovenly Americans and the crisp, conformist Chinese is striking. This eventually becomes a portrait of the state of labor in post-American capitalism, and as it becomes clear that the Chinese do not value the worker as an individual--either in terms of safety or in terms of actual personhood outside of work--and do not value anything beyond productivity (environmental regulations? How quaint), the unrest grows. A group of the workers begin organizing an attempt to unionize the plant, drawing reprisals from the company. One grinning Chinese supervisor shows the camera a photo of a man he's planning to drive away from the company for being pro-Union.

The weird thing is that The Chairman has reservations all his own. He laments a boyhood when he could listen to the chirping of birds and insects and wonders if he is responsible for the silence of the presence. "Am I a criminal?" he asks himself. This is remarkably candid. But billionaire or no, he's a cog in a machine, too. The Chinese way is revealed in this film as conformist, authoritarian, and indifferent to the individual. Work is all. Submission to the the goals of the collective outweigh the needs of the few. Welcome to the future, America.

The Commons (2019)

The Commons (2019, directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) features a culture clash of a different variety, following the months of protest on the campus of the University of North Carolina calling for the removal of the "Silent Sam" monument to Confederate soldiers from the University commons, and the counter-protests from neo-confederates. This follows closely on the rally of white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA, where a car driven by one of the supremacists plowed into anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing one woman in injuring others. The protest at UNC, therefore, is somewhat fraught.

This is mostly observational in a way that drops the viewer into the middle of crowds and lets them observe seemingly from the inside. It gives a fair hearing to both "sides" of the controversy--fair enough, anyway--giving the pro-monument activists just enough rope with which to hang themselves. The one guy who vows that he's not a racist while praising the "good things" that the Klan did in the community is a portrait of the willful ignorance and self-deception of casual racism, while some of the "civil debaters" are a study in the way trolls frame themselves as sensible and rational in their passive aggression. The protesters themselves are hardly nuanced, but they do keep their message on the subject at hand. And ultimately, they get what they want.

There was some discussion at the festival about the ethics of this film, particularly given that the filmmakers are both white and that there's a fine line between documentary and surveillance. While I think they are mostly on solid ground, there are a couple of incidents that give me pause. There's a scene where the police insist on unmasking a black bloc anti-fascist activists which the filmmakers leave in the film unquestioned. There's another scene featuring a woman dousing Silent Sam with a mix of red paint and her own blood which could theoretically be used as evidence against her if someone wanted to press charges. The protests themselves take place in the public square and there's an argument to be made that protesting in public voids one's right to anonymity, but what's right and what's permitted are often two different things. There's no right answer to this. In any event, The Commons is a snapshot of the push back against the current political moment, and an uncomfortable reminder that the past is never dead, to quote Faulkner, it's not even past.

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