The Short Documentary You Need to Watch With 'American Factory'

The new Netflix feature documentary is essentially a sequel to an Oscar-nominated film from 2009.

The Last Truck

Documentary sequels are often overlooked as such. Many of them aren’t officially follow-ups, and even when they are, some try to ignore the original. The later film will usually be of higher production value and may render the precursor obsolete by recapping its story early on in condensed form with reused and repurposed footage.

See the Up documentaries, for a good example of where each continuation plays fine (but not best) without your familiarity with the half-century of predecessors. Or there’s Revenge of the Electric Car, which is so much better than the film preceding it, Who Killed the Electric Car?, that it’s hard to believe they’re both by the same director.

The Netflix documentary feature American Factory is essentially a sequel to the HBO documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, which premiered exactly a decade prior. They’re not officially linked, though there is an acknowledgment of the earlier film in the press notes of the newer film. Perhaps the reason for detachment is that they’re released by competing distribution outlets.

Both are directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, with The Last Truck being Reichert’s third documentary nominated for an Academy Award; the short was Bognar’s one and only Oscar contender. American Factory is now one of 2019’s frontrunners for a nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category. Especially now that the film has the support of Barack and Michelle Obama.

Were it not for American Factory, I wouldn’t recommend The Last Truck. For an Oscar nominee especially it’s a cheap-looking short and consists of little more than simple man-on-the-street level interviews that happen to be focused on people who work, for just a few days more, at a shuttering General Motors plant in Moraine, Ohio.

For American Factory, Bognar and Reichert return to the same location, which is near the filmmakers’ home in Dayton. They’ve given the plant the feature treatment now and spruced up the cinematography with thanks from Reichert’s nephew, filmmaker Jeff Reichert (Remote Area Medical), plus Erik Stoll (América) and Aubrey Keith.

American Factory is also a much deeper and richer film, following workers and the management of the plant’s new tenant, Fuyao Glass America, rather than just having them talk at the camera, as the characters of The Last Truck do. I was certain, by the way, there’d be some overlap of characters — that would be wise, and there are definitely Fuyao employees who were GM employees — but I see no credits (nor did I recognize anyone) confirming such conformity.

‘American Factory’ (Netflix)

Fuyao is a China-based company that manufactures windshields and windows for automobiles, among its other glass products, and its movement into America, specifically with this factory in Ohio, is a big deal for its billionaire chairman as he expands to the US and a big deal for labor in the States, as it’s created tons of jobs, a lot of which went to people who lost theirs years earlier when GM closed operations in town.

There are problems galore, however, as Fuyao pays substantially lower than GM did and doesn’t have the security or safety of unionization — ironically, the company, despite originating in a supposedly communist nation, will not allow it. A clashing of cultures ensues because the work ethics of Chinese and American employees is drastically different. But it’s something Fuyao should adapt to more than the other way around. Americans struggled a long time to get where they are with regards to labor rights.

Bognar and Reichert remain fairly balanced in their portrayals of the Chinese and the Americans, whether that’s to keep to a neutrally observational format or because they don’t want to offend the company and the people that granted them access. The Fuyao management and the Americans willing to adapt to them do come off worse, though that could just be my point of view clouding my perspective of what’s viewable on the screen. If you believe employees should work six or seven days a week and in unsafe conditions, then maybe you’ll think the Fuyao company men come through with a pass.

While American Factory doesn’t recognize The Last Truck, the feature also doesn’t make the short as obsolete as many sequels do with the original. The new film does begin with a look at the closing of GM’s Moraine Assembly Plant in 2008 and there are at least one or two shots of its final days that are repeated from The Last Truck.

So there is something to be gained in your approach to American Factory by watching The Last Truck. Bognar and Reichert allow for more empathy with the American workers through their interviews with similar if not exact citizens who worked for GM. These interviews are basic, obvious, redundant, and sometimes corny (as are the shots of people waving to the camera at the end), but they’re also direct and personal and emotional.

They also seem to be one-sided with concern primarily for the working-class folks affected by the closing of the plant. There is no effort to present the position of Rick Wagoner, who was GM’s CEO at the time. The Last Truck doesn’t really censure GM explicitly, but it’s clear through the providing of its workers with this outlet that the film is more sensitive to their disapproval of the company laying them off.

Of course, filmmakers can change their minds or develop other ideas from what they had while making an earlier film. Ten years is a long enough duration, as is especially the time spent following the people on both sides of the Fuyao story, to have Bognar and Reichert feeling differently about either’s outlook as well as the bigger picture.

Regardless, The Last Truck offers viewers a context that they don’t get from American Factory alone. Not one that’s necessary to appreciate the feature, which is one of the year’s strongest documentaries by itself anyway. But one that’s worthwhile for greater comprehension of the whole story as well as to maybe find even more sympathy for the workers in American Factory.

The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant is now streaming on all HBO options as well as on Amazon Prime Video.

American Factory is streaming on Netflix

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.