Daytonians and the Chinese women and men who work alongside them are the stars of a local duo’s award-winning film that’s getting serious Oscar buzz from Indiewire.com and other media outlets.
Shawnea Rosser-Carter is among the central figures in “American Factory,” a documentary that explores labor, culture and the forces of modernization by Yellow Springs-based filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert.
“I think it is a good thing,” Rosser-Carter said of the movie. “It shows the American side and the Chinese side, how we mesh (and) how some parts don't mesh.”
The film made its theatrical debut at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton on Monday to a packed house who at times laughed, clapped and gasped.
The film, the first project resulting from the partnership between President Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and Netflix, is set to be released on the streaming service today, Aug. 21.
There will be screenings of the film today, Aug. 21 through Tuesday, Aug. 27, at The Neon movie theater, 130 E. 5th St., Dayton, The Little Art Theatre, 247 Xenia Ave. in Yellow Springs, and other theaters around the nation.
Bognar and Reichert, a couple of more than 30 years, earned an Academy Award nomination in the “Best Documentary (short subject)” category for their 2009 HBO film “The Last Truck” about the closing of the General Motors assembly operation in Moraine.
It was the third Oscar nomination for Reichert.
“American Factory” follows the creation of the Chinese-owned automotive glass-factory Fuyao Glass America in the same building that had once housed the GM plant.
Bognar and Reichert said they do not have the answers to the questions that workers here and abroad will face going forward, but they wanted to put the questions out there.
Rosser-Carter made $28 when she worked at GM, which closed in 2008. She says in the movie that during a three-year period that began in early 2015 that she earned $12.84 an hour when she began working at Fuyao as a pre-treatment inspector.
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Rosser-Carter, who is still employed at Fuyao, said she hopes the movie makes the company’s Chinese management and staffers better respect American culture.
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She said she’d like to see everyone at the company get along.
“I just like to see the plant grow,” Rosser-Carter said.
Chaoqun “Matt” Ma said he started at Fuyao just as the company’s tensions with those in support of joining the United Automobile Workers heated up.
Ma, who was not featured in “American Factory,” said he didn’t understand unions and was learning the company’s culture at the time.
“You feel you are just in the middle,” he said.
After seeing the film at the Victoria, he said he respected the strength of the union organizers during the fight for the union.
Workers ultimately voted not to join the UAW.
Ma said “American Factory” was a true depiction of what happened during the company’s early days.
He said he found the film touching and the director’s work amazing.
“They came to make sure that both sides, their voices are heard,” he said.
Jill Lamantia, a union activist in the film who was terminated, said she hopes the film starts a conversation “about the middle class and where it is heading in the manufacturing world.”
The film follows Lamantia’s attempts to regain the lifestyle she lost when GM closed and her home was foreclosed on.
The film follows the forklift operator from living in her sister’s basement to getting her own $400-a-month apartment.
Lamantia now works at Navistar International in Springfield.
“I am making a good living wage again,” she told this news organization.
Lamantia said she pushed for a union at Fuyao to improve things. “I wanted to be involved in it to help my fellow community co-workers to be able to make a better lifestyle for all of us to live by,” she said.
Mike Fullenkamp, Fuyao’s facilities services manager, was among the American supervisors to take a trip to the company’s headquarters in China.
Before screening the film, he spoke of the challenges of merging cultures.
“It's good I think,” Fullenkamp said of Fuyao being the focus of the documentary. “It's going to help other companies learn from our company. It's been a challenge for everybody on both sides.”
He said he has learned a lot working at Fuyao, which created jobs where there were not jobs.
“I learned how to deal with other people, other cultures, and not everybody thinks like I do,” Fullenkamp said, noting that mistakes have been made. “We’ve just got to learn from it.”
Local resident Rob Haerr befriends several Chinese co-workers in the film, inviting them to his home for target practice.
Some even road on his Harley-Davidson.
He calls Daquin “Leon” Liang and Wong He “Chinese brothers” in “American Factory,” but said he has not spoken to either since he was fired from his position.
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He and Wong are featured in a photo used widely to publicize the movie.
Haerr said he was told that due to Chinese culture, his absence from the company means he is dead to his Chinese friends.
He said seeing himself on the screen was surreal and that unity is possible.
“We could get along if everyone got together,” said Haerr, who now works in the parts department at Harley-Davidson.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the deck is often stacked against workers.
“I hope what I see from the movie is how workers need to organize and they need to come together. Sadly that doesn't happen very much.”