In her 2004 documentary The Beauty Academy Of Kabul, Liz Mermin captured a moment of profound simultaneous culture clash and symbiosis, as a group of American hairdressers opened a beauty school in Afghanistan. The Americans' arrogant obsession with superficialities was slyly entertaining, but it was clear that their students—women emerging from sharia law, and trying to earn a living and reclaim their femininity—took their classes as serious business. They needed their teachers, even if they didn't necessarily embrace the cultural messages that accompanied them.
Mermin tries to capture a similar scenario in Office Tigers, a new documentary about an outsourcing company in Chennai, India; launched by two American go-getters to supply cheap, 24-hour office-support services to companies worldwide, it plunks 3,000 people into a dispiriting cubicle farm and cheers them on with rah-rah team-building and expectations of long hours and high productivity. Mermin focuses on co-founder Joseph Sigelman, as he tours the facility asking people why they aren't wearing ties, lectures managers about cutting dead weight, and maintains a pasted-on salesman's smile during a seemingly never-ending round of team-building parties and rallies. She also talks to various managers, who spout depressing corporate cant about the importance of 20-hour work days and boundless company loyalty. Bubbling under the surface is a predictable tension between managers and employees: As with Beauty Academy, the locals need the American-run company, with its promises of financial self-sufficiency and success, but they don't necessarily need the shallow, overbearing culture that comes with it.
But while Mermin captures a great many hilariously uncomfortable managerial moments à la The Office, she never pins down how this firm is different from any others, or how the predictable tensions relate to the locale. And while she dedicates most of her samey footage to the managers' lockstepped perspective, she gets very little meaningful response from the employees. Mostly, they just sit around looking uncomfortable as the managers talk, though it's unclear whether that's because they know they're being fed bullshit, or because they don't want their responses to it captured on camera by strangers. Possibly Office Tigers' best moment comes when a group of trainees interrupt a long-winded seminar on motivation to explain that no, honestly, people don't get job satisfaction from a wide range of stimuli, they just want money. Like much of Office Tigers, it doesn't say much that's new and exciting, but it's a rare moment of cards-on-the-table honesty, which is in short supply in big corporations all around the world.
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