Silicon on celluloid: The dotcom retrospectives roll

Not long ago, California's Silicon Valley glittered like a diamond on the crown of the high-tech industry.

Across the nation, many cities gave birth to their own sparkling Silicon Alleys, Gulches, and Hills - gems of enterprise and entrepreneurship that generated jobs by the hundreds of thousands. The dotcom industry appeared to set a new standard for "cool" - and for the very future of work.

But times have toughened for Internet companies. Nearly 65,000 dotcom job cuts have been announced so far this year, according to the international outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Amid those layoffs, tech-stock devaluation, and company closures, several introspective new documentary films have arrived to help sort it all out.

Three independent films - "Secrets of Silicon Valley," "Startup.com," and "e-Dreams" - recently played to enthusiastic and sold-out crowds in Seattle and Silicon Valley, and will be screened during the summer on both coasts.

In all three cases, the filmmakers actually began their projects in the mid-to-late 1990s, a time of rapid growth for high-tech companies.

'Startup.com'

Jehane Noujaim, one of the director/producers of "Startup.com," says she watched in astonishment as her fellow Harvard grad Kaleil Isaza Tuzman began to raise "hundreds of millions of dollars without much of a business plan" toward the creation of govWorks.com.

Ms. Noujaim decided to begin filming Mr. Tuzman's dotcom adventure without much idea of where the project would take her, eventually hooking up with veteran filmmaker Chris Hegedus to co-direct.

"Startup.com" ended up being an engrossing look at the day-to-day challenges faced by the film's two protagonists, lifelong friends and business partners Tuzman and Thomas Herman. Securing $40 million in venture capital from 1999 to 2000, govWorks grew fast, employing more than 250 people.

But the dotcom dream that was to have made the founders, their investors, and employees rich and famous implodes in an imbroglio of interpersonal tensions, egos, round-the-clock meetings, financial wranglings, an act of sabotage, and a nosediving tech-stock sector.

All of it makes for a riveting documentary, but watching the govWorks.com dream turn into a nightmare "was painful to watch," says Noujaim.

The film has been showing to sold-out audiences in New York for more than a month now; the experience of watching it seems to be a kind of catharsis for viewers who personally experienced the "speculative bubble bursting," Hegedus says.

"Everybody was filled with so much passion and being part of this great adventure, and then it disappeared," adds Hegedus. "Now they have to find something else in their lives to replace this amazing thing that they were a part of."

'e-Dreams'

A similar story about the Web-based video-rental company, Kozmo.com, is the focus of "e-Dreams," which follows the lives of two young Korean-American investment bankers, co-founders Joseph Park and Yong Kang. In a short space of time, Kozmo.com grew from 10 employees to 3,000 and expanded into 11 cities. But after the April 2000 market crash, the company found itself struggling to stay afloat, before finally closing down entirely earlier this year.

'Secrets of Silicon Valley'

For laid-off employees, the high-tech sector is viewed with increasingly critical eyes. The past year has been filled with dissections of the "flexible" nature of temporary employment, in particular.

And it's in this arena that the new documentary, "Secrets of Silicon Valley," has had its biggest impact.

The film shows the assembly-line conditions at many of Silicon Valley's high-tech companies and the struggles of low-income residents who face the nation's highest housing costs. It incorporates interviews with wealthy venture capitalists and low-paid workers alike.

"Being in the Bay Area, there's just been a siege of hype that Silicon Valley technology is going to solve all of our problems; if you're smart enough and work hard, you can become a billionaire," says Alan Snitow, who co-directed and -produced the film with Deborah Kaufman.

But the total picture of Silicon Valley the filmmakers encounter includes a predominantly immigrant workforce that earns $6.50 to $8 per hour to assemble software packages and printers. Most of these temp workers, says Ms. Kaufman, are the first to lose their jobs when firms trim payrolls. Speaking out almost guarantees being fired, she notes, as is demonstrated in the film when temp worker Raj Jayadev loses his job for citing unsafe work conditions. (Mr. Jayadev ends up winning his claim of unlawful firing before the California Labor Commission.)

Episodes like that have led many young people to reconsider entering careers in a once alluring area, says Shana White, a San Jose, Calif., resident and one-time temp worker.

"Growing up around here, a lot of young people think they should get into high-tech because that's where the money is, but it doesn't work out that way," says Ms. White.

Many of her peers, she notes wryly, now consider retail jobs better sources of income and job stability than the temporary jobs offered by the high-tech sector. "People want a job they can hold onto."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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