Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Shannon Walsh – “The Gig is Up”

Shannon Walsh has written and directed feature documentaries “The Gig is Up,” “Illusions of Control,” “Jeppe on a Friday,” “À St-Henri, le 26 Août,” and “H2Oil,” as well as numerous short films and VR works. Walsh’s films have been broadcast, theatrically released, and exhibited in international film festivals; her work has also screened in museum spaces including the Venice Biennale and Pompidou Centre. Walsh is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a 2020-2021 Guggenheim Fellow.

“The Gig is Up” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

SW: This film looks at the true cost of the platform economy. From delivering food and driving ride-shares, to tagging images for AI, millions of people around the world are finding task work online, but the stories of the workers behind the tech go neglected.

When we tap the app on our phone, we don’t often think about the human labor behind the convenience. “The Gig is Up” is an attempt to bring those people and their stories out into the light, to encourage open conversations about what the future of work should look like and how task-based work might be valued.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SW: A lot of my previous work focused on the everyday struggles of people up against big structures, and stories that are often left untold. I’ve been interested in the evolution of capitalism as well — and this project contained all the ingredients and subject matter I’d been interested in for a while.

My last film, “Illusions of Control,” also interrogates the dangerous idea that technology would save us, which so often created more perilous situations, especially around the environment. This story is also about the illusion created around the magic of technology, which in fact hides the human labor with which it functions. I was interested in the ways this discourse of techno-optimism intersects with an ever-encompassing and all-consuming capitalist expansion. In the wake, there are so many human lives impacted and affected.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they watch the film?

SW: I want people to think about the people behind the apps they use every day. It’s vital we start to think about how we can actually make a possible task-based work environment that is equitable and fair for everyone.

When you tap that app on your phone there’s a whole world of people you engage with, not only those driving Ubers and delivering food, but also those supporting algorithms, tagging AI, and creating the computational frameworks for machine learning.

I also want to get people thinking about systems — like ratings — that are an unjust way to measure the value of a human being.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SW: One of the biggest challenges I had was finding some of the folks that Mary Gray calls “ghost workers,” dispersed throughout the world behind screens and so often in the shadows. I ended up developing a way to use the platforms themselves to connect with workers and have them send me videos, using that as a way of casting people for the film.

Apart from that, there were tons of other challenges all along the way, from filming the conditions of workers in China, to finding undocumented workers in France to tell us about their struggles to navigating the real fears many workers have of being deactivated or de-platformed for speaking out. It’s a contentious area for sure.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SW: My wonderful producers Ina Fichman and Luc Martin-Gousset deserve all the credit for financing the film, as I had nothing to do with that. We were lucky enough to be supported by ARTE France and Germany, as well as the CBC Documentary Channel, Rogers, and Telefilm Canada’s Theatrical Documentary Fund here in Canada.

We were also supported by Archer Gray and Evoke Media.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SW: Stories were a way I used to escape from as far back as I can remember. As an only child, I spent a lot of time in books and with characters in imaginary worlds. I became pretty obsessed with films and filmmakers in high school and spent a lot of time in the library watching films, taking notes, and reading books about films.

I made my first fiction videos and experimental films when I was about 15. It was a way of escaping to other worlds and expressing myself as a young person, when I often felt I didn’t have much of a voice. I’ve also always been an explorer and seeker, and even as a very young person, I was curious about the world and wanted to learn as much as I could about others. All of this made sense and everything clicked for me when it came to filmmaking.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

SW: Best advice: Let go or be dragged.

Worst advice: It’s too dangerous for a woman to … (fill in the blank).

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

SW: Your voice is needed. There’s enough to go around and there is space for you. Keep going and make sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you. Support other women.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SW: One of my favorite directors is Andrea Arnold. I really relate to the way she depicts girlhood in her films, with all its confusion, violence, and self-awakening. I love her style and the way she works with actors. It really speaks to my own sensibilities.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

SW: I finished this film during COVID-19 so obviously, yes! I’m working on lots of projects and have found this time pretty creatively rich, actually, since I live alone and have lots of time to myself.

I’m also doing a Guggenheim Fellowship this year and so have spent a lot of time writing in the mornings and preparing new work, specifically some fiction and a new hybrid documentary.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

SW: Hiring, hiring, hiring. There needs to be more effort at every level of production to ensure that writers rooms, sets, casts, crews, award committees, critiques, festival programmers, grants agencies — all of those spaces are diverse. It’s more than about time.

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