Review: After Work
- Erik Gandini's new documentary is breezy and attractive, but feels like a late arrival that is distanced in addressing its timely topic
In the present era when the nature of labour is constantly in flux and workers' rights are getting trampled on through new modalities of employment, such as the gig economy, the new documentary by Italian-Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini, After Work [+see also:
interview: Erik Gandini
film profile], which has just world-premiered at CPH:DOX, plays out like an afterthought of a semi-curious, but not exactly invested, observer.
As proven by his earlier works, such as Surplus – Terrorized into Being Consumers or his biggest hit, Videocracy [+see also:
film profile], Gandini certainly knows how to make an attractive, engaging documentary on big, timely topics. Now, teaming up with Ruben Östlund's regular cinematographer, Fredrik Wenzel, and with a score by Johan Söderberg and Christoffer Berg, he has come up with another gorgeous-looking and -sounding film, but this time around, he is a little bit late with it.
The doc explores its topic in such contrasting places as Italy, Kuwait, the USA and South Korea, through interviews with experts, officials and everyday people, and with select quotes from existing – and well-known – recordings of Noam Chomsky, Yiannis Varoufakis, Yuval Noah Harari and Elon Musk. It opens in South Korea, where the government has decided to introduce “PC off” time, shutting down all office computers at 6 pm in an attempt to change the over-worked people's habits.
An energetic American ethic development expert tells Gandini about the US culture of always being (or looking) busy, which has led to people not even using up their meagre allowance of vacation weeks, and a Gallup representative describes three types of workers: engaged, not engaged and actively disengaged ones – the latter, according to him, being the ones making everybody else miserable. A philosopher traces back the modern work ethic to Calvinism and believers' fear of damnation, while an Italian sociologist describes NEETs, young people who are “not in education, employment or training”, a phenomenon especially present in Southern Europe.
In oil-rich Kuwait, there are sometimes 20 people in one position, leaving them without any actual work to do while simultaneously being paid handsomely. This is where the dichotomy of leisure versus work is introduced, as well as the meaning of purpose – a US woman finds her Amazon delivery job fulfilling, even if she has heard of disenfranchised colleagues who have to urinate in bottles due to the constant surveillance. In Italy, we meet a gardener who doesn't care about having fun, but also a couple where the wife is a rich heiress, and the husband is a firm believer in the value of work and is opposed to the idea of universal basic income.
This notion is combined with the introduction of the double-edged sword of automation, and in his trademark, humorous style with abrupt cutting and ear-grabbing sound design, Gandini deftly interweaves all of these elements for an engaging watch – unless you have been following this topic with some interest in the last five years, meaning that little will come across as new. This is why the film feels quite distanced from its theme, as if there was no awareness among the production team that the issue of labour in times of unbridled capitalism has practically spawned a whole sub-genre of documentaries, some of which, like The Gig Is Up [+see also:
film profile] or even smaller ones like last year's Happy Worker, explored it with a great deal more investment and in-depth research, often resulting in eye-opening revelations for the audience.
After Work is a co-production by Sweden's Fasad AB and Italy's Propaganda Italia, in collaboration with RAI Cinema, Swedish Television, Norway's Indie Film, the Netherlands' VPRO and Germany's Geo Television.
Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.