Review: The Gig Is Up (2021)

Still from The Gig is Upby Shannon Walsh

Being your own boss sounds tempting and that is the reason why people quit jobs and try to start something on their own or, more recently, taking platform-based gig work. That kind of work promises freedom regarding the time- and amount-of-work management and also competitive earning, but the other side of it is poor job security and little to none benefits since gig workers are not the employees, but independent contractors. And here comes the shocker: you did not get rid of a boss at all, your boss now is an algorithm, and “he” is ever-present and more heartless than a human being could possible be.

The Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh takes up on the subject of the different aspects and forms of gig work in the current state of capitalism in her newest feature-length work The Gig Is Up. The film premiered at CPH DOX and is on the festival tour ever since. We caught it at DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo, where it was selected for the Truth Dox competition.

Undeniably, there are some advantages of gig work both for workers and especially their clients: nowadays one can order an item or a service with just few clicks on a computer or a smartphone, and someone providing the service like a cab ride, food delivery and even housework like assembling the IKEA closet, can earn some quick cash. For the people coming from the lower societal ranks, like the undocumented immigrants or convicted felons, that kind of work can serve as the only lifeline.

At start, one can see only the advantages, but the basic rules of the market, like supply and demand, also apply to gig work in more and more sinister way, putting the workers under more and more stress as the competition grows and each company wants to achieve the monopole status in its line of work on certain territory. We have already seen it all before, even from the customer’s perspective, with Amazon, Uber, Deliveroo and the rest.

The trouble is that the “game” is even more rigged at its core, and it is rigged solely against the workers. The companies avoid to show their profits, matching them with investment expenses and aiming to conquer more markets, while the expenses regarding the workforce are being constantly cut. In the end, the earnings are not competitive at all and all the stress is relegated down to the workers who still do not get any benefits from their work, but cannot switch careers any more. It is a vicious cycle.

Another form of gig work is the so-called “ghost work” that is even more secretive and sinister. Based on platforms like Amazon’s own Mechanical Turk and oriented on seemingly simple task of taking surveys, performing various checks on the content or transcribing, the real job is something completely different: “teaching” the algorithm by providing a human input and insight to it for the future. The ethics of that kind of work gets more and more dubious.

For the purpose of her documentary, Walsh goes to California, Florida, France, Nigeria and China to conduct the interviews with the workers of different professions like Uber/Lyft drivers, delivery bike riders and “M-Turkers” at their work places. Their individual positions and moral dilemmas actually deserve their own documentaries. It particularly stands for Jason Edwards, a “Turker” with the mouth full of gold teeth and a rap sheet, who takes more and more tasks in order to provide for his mother who is addicted on lottery tickets. Walsh also interviews the writers, theoreticians and entrepreneurs who put the individual experiences of the workers into a wider societal context.

The Gig Is Up is actually more broad than it is deep, but in its core, it is informative and thought-provoking. Craft-wise, it is very well made, sometimes with striking imagery like the bicycle graveyard in Shenzhen where the casualties of the food delivery wars lie, so the cinematographer Étienne Roussy should be commended for that. The discreet musical score by David Chalmin also fits well with the film’s tissue, while the editing by Sophie Farkas-Bolla makes it easy to follow despite its globe-trotting narrative.

Even if it is not groundbreaking, especially regarding in the department of style, The Gig Is Up is more than a timely piece of documentary filmmaking. However, it is obvious that the majority of its material dates from the pre-pandemic times, while the pandemic itself made the tectonic shifts even in the context of gig work. Walsh tried to introduce that aspect in the film’s final act, but the freelance reviewer here would like to see a sequel, since the talk about gig work and the practice of gig work is far from being over.

Runtime: 88’
Countries: Canada, France
Languages: English, French, Cantonese
Directed by: Shannon Walsh
Written by: Shannon Walsh, Harold Crooks, Julien Goetz
Cinematography by: Étienne Roussy
Editing by: Sophie Farkas-Bolla
Music by: David Chalmin
Sound recording by: Bryce Picard
Colourist: Charles Boileau
Visual effects by: Kara Blake
Produced by: Ina Finchman, Luc Martin-Gousset
Production companies: Intuitive Pictures, Point du Jour, Arte France, Archer Gray, Evoke Media, Telefilm Canada, Rogers Group of Friends
Sales by: Dogwoof