Lighthouse International Film Festival Closing Film Timely To the Max

Chinese Billionaire Owns ‘American Factory’
By RICK MELLERUP | May 27, 2019

Long Beach Township, NJ — You have to wonder what the biggest news story of 2019 will be. The tension between the U.S. and Iran, now a mere smoldering campfire, could become a blazing wildfire if sparked by something such as an accidental collision between Iranian and American warships. Other usual suspects such as North Korea, Palestine and Venezuela could rear their ugly heads. Obviously if the House Democrats were to impeach President Trump, that situation would become an instant contender. The problems at the Mexican border aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. How many Americans will die from opioid overdoses this year? Finally, if the trade war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China continues to expand, soybean growers won’t be the only people being hurt.

Well, the 2019 Lighthouse International Film Festival, on Long Beach Island from June 6 to 9, may provide a clue. The festival has a habit, a good habit, of screening timely films.

In 2016, the festival’s centerpiece documentary was German-Latvian director Kristian Kiehling’s “Chronicle of a Summer in Europe,” which recorded the plights of migrants arriving in Europe in the summer of 2015, a flow that had produced many a headline, especially whenever a crude boat capsized, spilling its human contents into the Mediterranean, often with deadly results. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in the European Union produced a backlash that put far-right political parties back on the map, led to Brexit, and helped then presidential candidate Donald Trump push immigration to the top of his list of issues.

2017’s closing-night film was “Missing in Europe,” directed by Tamar Halpern and filmed in Belgrade. It was a narrative thriller in which a mother tried to save her daughter, who had been kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring. The movie was fictional but was based on a sad truth because the U.S. Department of State had warned that “Serbia is a source, transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, including domestic servitude and forced begging.” The real-life rings’ victims include migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The closing night film for 2018 was a stunning documentary about sea level rise called “Anote’s Ark,” directed by Matthieu Rytz. It dealt with the threat posed to the Republic of Kiribati, a low-lying country comprised of 32 atolls and reef islands and one raised coral island spread over a vast area of the central Pacific Ocean. Many scientists believe Kiribati may disappear within 100 years due to sea level rise, a disturbing prediction considering the average altitude in the island nation is 6 feet while Long Beach Island’s average elevation is half that!

The opening night film of the 2019 LIFF, “Skin,” is certainly timely. As described in last week’s SandPaper, it is a fictionalized take on a 2012 MSNBC documentary called “Erasing Hate” about Bryon Widner, a reformed violent skinhead who has to undergo numerous painful surgeries to remove his abundant racist tattoos. Like right-wing political parties in Europe, racists in America are thriving in this era of deep division.

Well, this year’s LIFF closing film may be the timeliest yet because it deals not only with the economic battles between the U.S. and China, but also with the effort to restore this country’s heartland, an issue that may well determine the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

“American Factory,” directed by Julie Reichert and Steven Bognar, is a 115-minute documentary that tells the story of Chinese investor Cao Dewang. In 2014, the billionaire bought a shuttered GM plant in Moraine, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, that had closed in 2008, throwing more than 2,000 workers out of work and which, in its heyday, had employed some 6,000 people. He reopened the factory, called it Fuyao Glass America, and brought over hundreds of workers from China to train a couple of thousand locals to produce windshields and auto glass.

The Ohio workers should have been thrilled, right? As it turns out, not for long.

If working on a GM assembly line had been a soul-sucking and stressful repetitive exercise, at least it offered good pay and benefits, thanks to the union. Employees at the Fuyao factory are paid far less – in one case $12 an hour instead of $29 – and the Americans have safety concerns.

Meanwhile, the Chinese managers think the Americans are stupid and lazy. After all, back in China the company’s employees work 12 hours a day and get two days off a month at best.

Reichert and Bognar followed the happenings at the factory for four years and saw the American workers try to unionize even as Cao Dewang threatened to close up shop if they did. What happened in the end? Come on, no spoilers here! But it can be said that Daniel Fienberg, reviewing the film at Sundance for The Hollywood Reporter, wrote that “just as it’s settling into a rhythm, ‘American Factory’ becomes a different, more chilling, forward-looking story/warning in its last 10 minutes.”

The Dayton-based filmmakers were already familiar with the old plant going in – their 2009 40-minute short “The Last Truck,” which focused on the closing of the GM plant in 2008, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. So it isn’t surprising that Peter Debruge, who reviewed the film for Variety, wrote “Of all the documentaries you see this year, this one most potently embodies the ever-changing sense of the words ‘Made in America.’”

“American Factory” will be shown at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 9, at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, located at 120 Long Beach Blvd. in the Loveladies neighborhood of Long Beach Township.

Individual tickets are $12 and may be purchased online at LIFF individual tickets may be purchased at the door at all of its venues, but opening and closing films usually attract large crowds, so you could be shut out if you don’t purchase in advance.

The LIFF is also offering all-access passes, which get you into any films you wish to see, Friday and Saturday night parties, “Breakfast with the Filmmakers” on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the awards ceremony and priority seating. All access passes are $125 and may purchased online or at the Welcome Center of the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, located at 265 West Ninth St., Ship Bottom.

— Rick Mellerup

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