Tag Archives: Oscar nominee

Animal Farm

American Factory

by Hope Madden

When filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the last days of Moraine, Ohio’s GM plant for their Oscar nominated 2008 doc The Last Truck, they probably did not foresee a second nomination coming nearly a decade later for what amounts to a sequel.

And yet, American Factory returns to the same scene, this time to provide a fly-on-the-wall peek at the Fuyayo Glass Factory, a Chinese/American experiment taking place inside those same walls.

The first film released by Michelle and Barak Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is a case study in cross-cultural miscommunication and national personality clash.

After Moraine’s GM plant closed, the town sank into economic disaster—something Dayton’s own Bognar and Reichert certainly witnessed daily since the short film. Looking to expand their production in the States, China’s Fuayo Glass Industry Group purchased the old GM plant and instantly created quite a buzz.

What Reichert and Bognar capture is astonishing and unnervingly honest. Chinese workers in Ohio are given a crash course in what to expect from Americans, as management tutors them to expect blunt honesty and the Americans’ belief that they are somehow special no matter who they are. Meanwhile, American managers are treated to a company meeting in China where the orderliness and productiveness of the workers inspires awe, the propaganda-riddled pageantry alarms, and the sight of employees sifting through broken glass to find pieces worth salvaging horrifies.

The human struggle at the plant mostly comes down to an attempt to unionize, which Chinese management sees as an opportunity for lazy Americans to gut productivity while the American labor sees it as an opportunity to institute legal protections concerning safety, health code regulations, wages and benefits.

It truly is as if the parties speak different languages.

Bognar and Reichert strive to provide a balanced point of view. Any finger- wagging is directed at both sides of the argument, but even that’s somewhat limited. The filmmakers and their film are more interested in the human side of the exchange. The film sheds light on the loneliness of the Chinese workers biding their time until their families can be brought overseas. We’re also privy to the early optimism and then heartbreaking disappointments faced by the Ohioans hoping for another chance to make an honest living.

While the cultural wreckage offers a fascinating sociological experiment, the film ends far more ominously as automation proves to eliminate all concerns over wages, hours, productivity, quality, jingoism, racism and any other human frailty you can think of.

What the filmmakers encapsulate about humanity, culture and the future of labor is equal parts enthralling and frightening.

No Escape

Toni Erdmann

by Christie Robb

It has already been a rough year. If you are looking for a movie to help you escape the bleakness of the year, Toni Erdmann isn’t exactly going to be it. No space battles, no superheroes, no fantastic beasts. It’s a spare and complicated film about a sad, silly man trying to reconnect with his distant, ambitious daughter.

The daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works for an international consulting firm based in Bucharest. Her job is to compellingly propose outsourcing to oil company management. She shoulders the responsibility of job losses so that executives can sidestep the guilt. Ines doesn’t see much of her family and her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), jokes about hiring a substitute daughter to take Ines’s place (at Ines’s expense).

After the death of his beloved elderly dog, Winfried visits Ines, appearing unannounced in the lobby of her office building. Unfortunately, she’s in the midst of a project that may help her make partner. Her dad’s presence and corny jokes (delivered in front of clients) get under Ines’s skin and threaten her advancement.

Failing to reconnect, Winfred agrees to go home. Ines hits a bar to vent to some networking contacts about her horrible weekend. The man next to her at the bar introduces himself. It’s Winfried in a bad wig, with bizarre false teeth, claiming to be “Toni Erdmann”—consultant and life coach. Unwilling to out him (and by extension herself) to her contacts, Ines plays along while Toni inserts himself into her professional life, showing up at her office and at after-hours parties.

Hüller and Simonischek are outstanding, giving utterly believable, finely wrought performances—Hüller in particular. Ines’s carefully crafted professional polish requires that very little of her interior life is visible, and Hüller manages to get a lot across with the twitch of a lip or a downward tilt of the head.

But this is not the heartwarming, wacky father-daughter reconnection movie you might expect. There’s little of the tidy warmth that characterized Thicke’s Growing Pains. But there is a lot more realism. Writer/director Maren Ade’s film is almost three hours long, giving time to contextualize the characters in a way more typical of the new Golden Age of Television. We understand why Ines might be tempted to throw herself out of her apartment window, and we get why Winfried/Toni might not exactly have the answers for why she shouldn’t. But we see how hard he tries.

This is definitely not the movie that delivers on the uncomplicated warm fuzzies. It’s sad and weird, sometimes funny, and thoroughly awkward. But it might inspire you to embrace a loved one, and after this year, a good long bear hug is probably something we could all use.