What would you do if you didn’t have to work?

FUTURE / Renowned filmmaker Erik Gandini talks to Modern Times Review about the meaning a society based intensively towards work. But also more existential questions like Basic Salary, individualism – and interdependence as a way forward.

The Italian-Swedish director Erik Gandini’s documentary After Work (2023) has played in many festivals this year. Modern Times Review is in Bologna, Italy, at the Biografilm documentary festival, where After Work is in the program. We introduced this film in our earlier review with this statement: «Why being irrelevant could be worse than being exploited in the new world of automation and artificial intelligence. » With new technology and organisation, we are heading to a future of less work, as Gandini postulates in this film:

«This opportunity of working less has happened many times in history. It’s also the old story of the machines taking over. But why haven’t we taken that opportunity fully? If you look at how productivity was in the seventies – what it then took 100 people to do, takes 50 today.»

«People voted for Donald Trump because he convinced them the Mexicans were coming and taking their jobs. But it’s rather the robots that are coming. But he didn’t say that.»

With around eight billion people on this earth, only around one billion are fortunate to have a regular, paid job, according to Gandini’s film. However, the surprising statistics of the film are that only 15 percent of these are enthusiastic, emotionally connected, and positive about their work. At the same time, the ‘work ethics’ in the United States manages to make people work too much, as the unspent holidays count to 578 million hours – which amounts to nearly 66,000 years – vacation time that workers do not use.

Erik Gandini
PC: Truls Lie

What we call ‘NEET’ – Not in Employment, Education or Training.

At the same time, a lot of people are unemployed and are irrelevant to their governments:

«Now we are here in Italy. In the film, there’s a chapter about what we call ‘NEET’ – Not in Employment, Education or Training. Italy has the highest NEET among young people between 20 and 30+ in Europe. It’s very easy to say that these are the shame of the society that will lead to economic collapse, being unsustainable, etc. But instead, I ask in the film: Wait a minute, maybe this aversion to work is more interesting and promising for the future?»

But would audiences consider this film too optimistic about today and the future?

«The Industrial Revolution started 350 years ago and was the perfect idea of the work ethic then. But now, this idea is not compatible with the present. If any of the 85 percent disengaged employees that statistics talks about could have the freedom not to go to work – I think it’s a very interesting experiment.»

«People voted for Donald Trump because he convinced them the Mexicans were coming and taking their jobs. But it’s rather the robots that are coming. But he didn’t say that.»

Basic income

There is a scene in After Work where Elon Musk is talking about the mass unemployment of the future, and he talks positively about Universal Basic Income. Why is Gandini using this man who fired thousands when he bought the Twitter (today ‘X’) company?

«I used his voice to get the question that I would otherwise put myself with a voiceover – and I don’t use the voiceover in this film. If we talk about Elon Musk, I don’t think he cares about unemployed people. I think he wants to be able to fire and sack people as much as he wants – as Jeff Bezos at Amazon probably does. For Musk, even talking about Basic Income is just a completely opportunistic way of not having to deal with employment problems.»

What if, like the old Greek society with their slaves, we today had machines as our slaves? Says Gandini: «Isn’t that a good idea? All human beings could benefit from the extra time. It’s a wonderful idea.»

«Kuwait is interesting because it is as close as a sort of a future society you can get because they have this system which is very similar to some sort of Basic Income model with redistribution of wealth to its citizens.»

Oil states like Kuwait or Norway can afford such. At the same time, Basic Income risks creating what Gandini observes in his film: a generation of «spoilt, ignorant and irresponsible» people who will fall at the first hurdle when any challenge arises. But what will happen if new technology like artificial intelligence and ChatGPT would make us lazy?

«I really want to believe that with ChatGPT we would not stop being creative, dynamic, and productive creatures. But As Noam Chomsky talks about in this film, we have an education system that is really removing, and dismantling this creativity from us – and just teaching us to be disciplined and to accept the rule of order and power.»

But what if society developed into a massive screen passive consuming population? I ask Gandini:

«My partner had read about this new Google mask thing, which someone described as a revolutionary moment – like the first iPhone, that would change things forever. My first thought was that we’re entering a phase of virtual reality, metaverse type or E-wall, where you just can sit there and be stimulated by images. But my biggest wish is that our documentaries will also make people go out in the real world – although how banal that sounds. Yes, I can see how attractive all this technology is. But I think people will look for more authentic experiences, feeling smell and touch, and also real-life encounters with people who challenge your ideas.»

After Work documentary Erik Gandini
After Work, a film by Erik Gandini

Zygmunt Bauman

In After Work, the old philosopher Zygmunt Bauman says people usually think they are what they do. They find their value through work. This can also maybe be seen as a statement behind the film:

«You are the first who is asking me about this Bauman quote. That is very connected to me, to the whole After Work project. Bauman also says that in a comfortable society, you never experience joy. Joy is something you experience when you challenge yourself. When you struggle and achieve – in the end, you will feel some sort of joy.»

What then about the 85 percent who don’t like their work? What society do we want to have?

«I must mention that I asked Bauman – it’s not in the film – ‘okay, what’s the best society in the world?’ He was 93 at the time, after a life of studying societies, and he gave me a wonderful answer. He said, ‘the perfect society does not exist’. His definition of a good society does not believe to be a perfect society – and that is always questioning itself, always having an attitude of fallibility.»

«I think that Bauman was on the point when he criticises how comfortable a life by your own is. That you don’t have to deal with people who are not like you. You can sit at home, socialise on the internet, and as soon as you get tired, just shut it off. Bauman also mentioned gated communities, living with people like you, as many have as a big dream. But there is no risk of challenging your beliefs, opinions, or values. That is not the reality – you have to expose yourself to someone who is not like you. Which is what I do in my films.»

«Joy is something you experience when you challenge yourself.»

Individualism and interdependence

Gandini is using Bauman’s concept of interconnectivity to criticise the individualism and independence important in the societies of the West. We are shifting focus, as Gandini addresses the problem of individualism in his previous film, The Swedish Theory of Love (2015). Around half of the people in ‘modern’ societies like Sweden and Norway are living alone:

«What intrigued me in the The Swedish Theory of Love were two things. One is showing a side of the society with huge admiration from the rest of the world – including my Italian father, who said Sweden is fantastic. But there is a strong type of individualism people don’t see. Sweden talks about itself as the most modern society in the world, where we have left behind old-fashioned family structures and lifestyles. In our modernity, you should first be able to realise yourself and never depend or rely on anybody. That is what I question in that previous film. But the biggest motive, to be honest, was that I felt that the Sweden I moved to from Italy was arrogant.»

«All my friends who have experienced coming to Scandinavia from the rest of the world get this message: ‘ You can learn from us, but you cannot teach us anything because we have reached the top of societal development’. That provokes me a lot. And also because many people expressed that ‘oh, these Italians, they’re so crazy and funny’.»

In Italy, we say work makes men noble.

But what about Gandini himself today, as a modern Swedish citizen? «To be honest, okay, I believe I’m totally right because I come from Sweden. But suddenly, you must challenge yourself – as you are part of a leftist background, where you always think that the rich people they’re worse than you. Because we work harder, we are more genuine, and they are bored and more superficial. But it’s not so simple. In Italy, we say work makes men noble. But I thought, hmm, maybe it’s freedom that makes you noble, the freedom to decide upon yourself – and not necessarily work.»

What, then, about Bauman’s concept of interdependence?

«I liked how the concept of interdependence challenges the narcissistic idea that I don’t need anybody else. That I’m so self-sufficient. I feel strongly that this idea in Sweden is counterproductive. Interdependence starts after you start to manage your life economically, as young people move from home – at 19 is the average for Scandinavia. But emotionally, I don’t think they’re really where they could be. But – I also believe in the free choice of relationships. Although 50 percent of marriages are doomed to fail in Sweden, it doesn’t mean these people are lonely – although I’m talking about against myself now …»

In Swedish Theory of Love, happiness is also the topic: A hippie group is sitting in the woods, touching each other. Adults relate to each other based on volunteerism and independence. One of them talks about society as obsessed with security. Since the film was made in 2015, today, we also see a ‘control society’ growing around us with more security and militarism. Maybe that film was too modern for its time, as Gandini says, and I ask him if it was a kind of future idea of society:

«I believe that compared to the South, you can have high expectations for your life – you don’t take shit. You don’t live in a bad relationship. You rather move forward and find someone better. It’s a healthy attitude. My provocation in The Swedish Theory of Love was more against arrogance than such common sense.»

Another thinker referred to in the film is Peter Russell, and his little-known but important book, The White Hole in Time (1993):

«Russell wrote that we were spiraling toward a point of transition – where the choice lay between ascending to a life lived in the knowledge of our existence as spiritual beings on an earthly plane. Or, on the other side, falling to the bottom and starting from scratch – in some post-apocalyptic pre-industrial age, where life would revert to the dog-eat-dog of pre-history. Either or.»

Gandini wants to be concrete: «The first option is something that can really mature with less work, more introspection, more insights, more knowledge, more empowerment, and more connection between people. I’m super optimistic when it comes to a society of less work and more time. But it has to be followed by removing the stigma of unemployment – since for many it’s such a scary dimension.»

The Swedish Theory of Love Erik Gandini
The Swedish Theory of Love, a film by Erik Gandini

Idea-driven – future

The conversation then turns more to Gandini’s motivations and methods of filmmaking:

«You know, with my films, I really like the dysfunctional sides of things. It gets me going creatively. I seldom look for people to be put on a pedestal. That someone else should tell you what to do. Maybe Bauman is one of the few with such a guidance role in After Work. But I could never put someone Greta Thunberg in my film, although the great things she does for society.»

The last part of After Work concerns the question, ‘What would you do if you didn’t have to work?’. Gandini says that people were not applauding in the premiere, and he was a bit annoyed by this: «But I realised that this is an uncomfortable question.»

«It is not about how things are, but how they could be.»

Most documentaries today are one-character-driven films. I ask Gandini about this method: «I like characters; they get me inspired. But I like to call my films ‘idea-driven’ stories rather than character-driven. In film schools, especially documentary filmmakers are taught to do portraits because portraits of famous people are successful in TV and entertainment programs. I don’t like to end up like a ‘portrait painter’ of famous persons. Rather than living in the shadow of some celebrity, I think filmmakers should look at themself as big enough characters themselves.»

Since 2016, Gandini has been a professor of Documentary Film at Stockholm University of the Arts, where he teaches Creative Documentary. I am wondering about Gandini’s obsession with the future – as he also heads a collaborative research project in Sweden on this topic – called The Future Through the Present:

«I can tell you why. It’s really connected to the feeling of frustration I had when I did The Swedish Theory of Love. I felt so misunderstood because I felt that my mindset was projected forward, and people were expecting me to say something about how things are. I felt it was a failure.

«That made it very clear that my mindset was not like the Swedish ideas of autonomy and independence. But the film was not about Sweden. For me, it was a much bigger question – not about how things are, but how they could be.»

Read Also: Utopias of Community

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp:/www.moderntimes.review/truls-lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review.

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