Sunday, September 10, 2006

Office Tigers

Office Tigers is the latest documentary from director Liz Mermin; her previous work includes the docs On Hostile Ground and The Beauty Academy of Kabul. Office Tigers focuses on a company called, naturally enough, OfficeTiger, founded in 1999 by Joseph Sigelman and Randy Altschuler. OfficeTiger performs back-office functions for corporations around the world, everything from document processing to print layouts.

Mermin managed to gain an amazing level of access to the company, its workers, and their personal lives. Through formal and candid interviews in and around the centre of operations in Chennai, India, she shows the drive that made OfficeTiger into a 100-million dollar company. At the same time, she subtly exposes the personal cost that the managers and employees pay, both consciously and unconsciously, to keep the company moving forward and ahead of newer, lower cost competitors in other countries.

The employees all show an incredible amount of dedication, constantly on the phone handling client issues even during the boss' birthday party or while at home, and thinking nothing of continually working weekends or 20-hour days. While the work ethic may seem insane to North Americans, there's no denying it helped drive the company from nothing to $100 million in revenue in only five years.

As the camera moves throughout the offices, voyeuristically taking in project teams rushing to meet deadlines, management meetings, client calls, and training sessions, the occasionally surreal and humorous situations that arose reminded me more than once of The Office.

Mermin juxtaposes the OfficeTiger management speak and party line, which is common to companies around the world, with candid footage and interviews that often belie the point. We see managers talking about the importance of personal life next to scenes of managers telling their staff to tell their loved ones not to see much of them over the upcoming weeks. There are scenes of an instructor telling a training class to be proud of their Indian heritage, yet there is an underlying drive to make the employees more western in their dress, motivations, and attitude in order to suit their customers.

Nevertheless, Mermin is never heavy-handed in trying to make a point, especially as no one is dumb enough to jeopardize their job by saying anything overtly negative. Everyone is obviously proud of how their work has built the company up from nothing, and many remain dedicated to the company and the goal of moving it further. Still, some will eventually seek new opportunities outside the company and gain more of a balance with the rest of their lives.

Liz Mermin was in attendance at the screening and stayed for a Q&A after the film:

  • She got the idea for the film after reading a New York article on OfficeTiger. She thought it would make for an amazing film, but that the company would never agree to do it. She had friends who knew the two founders and connected them up with her, and they agreed to do the film.
  • Mermin felt that the founders never really took the film seriously until they heard it was going to screen in Toronto.
  • Shooting lasted three months; at first people were very tight-lipped and they were often shut out of meetings. But six weeks in, they gained the confidence of the employees.
  • The company has seen the film, although not the people back in India, and they liked it, which scared Mermin a bit. But she always tries to ask herself in the editing room, is she representing these people in a way they would think is an accurate representation of what they meant to say or how they think of themselves, and then the audience can make their own conclusions about what they think of these people.
  • She hopes that the subtle erosion of faith comes across in the film; in act one, there's the company propaganda, then come cracks as a result of the exhaustion and lack of trust. But she says the problem about making documentaries about empowered, intelligent people is that they don't say anything to get themselves in trouble.

Mermin added an entry to the festival's Doc Blog, explaining the film and her vision a little more:

Personal note: ironically enough, I ran into a co-worker at the screening and we ended up talking shop before the movie started. :-)


My experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. Note this blog is not affiliated with the Toronto International Film Festival Group or the festival itself.
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