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The Obamas’ First Film for Netflix is Making Headlines in China

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The Obamas’ first film for Netflix, entitled American Factory, is making waves in China — and it’s not even out yet.

Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary is a follow-up to their 2008 short The Last Truck, which traced the last days of a General Motors factory just south of Dayton, Ohio. For this new film, they returned to the small town of Moraine to witness the facility’s apparent rejuvenation under Chinese ownership, after billionaire Cao Dewang swooped in to reopen the plant as part of his automobile windscreen empire Fuyao.

Yet what seemed like a savior story soon turned sour, as Fuyao’s expectations of longer hours, lower pay and no unions set up a major culture clash with its new American workers. The conflict, as the official Netflix blurb has it, “threatens to shatter an American dream.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year, where it scooped a directing award for US documentary and was snapped up by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions company. The AV Club called the documentary — which comes to Netflix on August 21 — “superb”; Rolling Stone praised its “ability to contain multitudes within a single captured moment” in a 4 star review; and The Guardian has asked whether it will be the “biggest documentary of 2019”.

And now, the documentary is making headlines in China. Clips from Netflix’s trailer overlaid with Chinese subtitles summarizing the story have been circulating on social media.

“Comrade Obama is not playing around,” reads one of the most upvoted comments regarding the story on microblogging platform Weibo. Another simply reads, “USA freedom”.

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“This is a bit of slap to the face for Trump,” suggests one commenter on Weibo. Another user puts forward an alternative name for the film: “The Imminent Collapse of the American Factory Under Trump.” Many of those leaving comments under a clip posted by Sina’s Economics Weibo channel say they are looking forward to seeing the film.

However, it’s unclear whether the documentary will ever be released in China officially given Netflix is not available in the country.

But whether you watch it for its examination of US-China relations at a very real, human level, for its exploration of “the challenges of the globalized economy” (as this in-depth New Yorker piece highlights), or simply for the apparent drama of the story that unfolds, for those who can access the streaming service it sounds like American Factory will be a fascinating, vital film to catch.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.

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