Friday, November 7, 2014

Bureaucracy and the film Brazil

I first saw the film Brazil in 1985 when it was released. It seems to have made a lasting impression on me, since I have remembered its basic message many years later. The message is that an out-of-control bureaucracy goes hand-in-hand with an Orwellian world, a dystopia, where the bureaucratic powers that be control the lives of society’s citizens. Parts of the film (a satire) are funny, but if you’ve lived a while and had anything at all to do with dysfunctional bureaucracies, you’ll understand that what you’re seeing on the screen is far from funny. A functionary named Sam Lowry, who is good at his low-level job but bored with his life, has recurrent dreams about rescuing a pretty blond girl and flying away with her to live a life of ‘happily ever after’. His mother, who is well-connected with all of the important bureaucrats, is trying to get him promoted, which he doesn’t want. She’s also trying to get him together with the daughter of a friend, something neither he nor the young woman wants. One of his assignments is to rectify a form error that resulted from a fly falling into a typewriter and causing the typewriter to type B instead of T when writing the name Tuttle, which has dire consequences for Archibald Buttle (a shoe cobbler with a family), not Archibald Tuttle (a terrorist and enemy of the state). This proves to be more difficult than he can imagine, and in this dystopian future, Archibald Buttle ends up dead. The bureaucracy that caused his death wants nothing more than to cover up this error and to forget it. Lowry ends up meeting Jill Layton, a neighbor of the Buttle family who reports this error (she is the woman from his dreams), and finds out that she is considered a terrorist because she insists on justice for Buttle’s family. When he decides to help her, he is also labeled a terrorist along with the woman he loves. Along the way, he ends up meeting terrorist Archibald Tuttle, a heating engineer who doesn’t play by the rules and who fixes Lowry’s heating system without the proper forms and authorized parts. This causes Lowry a number of problems with the bureaucracy that simply won’t accept that he has had unauthorized repair work done on his heating system, and his apartment is taken away from him. Those scenes are funny and sadly enough, true if you work in bureaucratic public sector workplaces and don’t play by their rules.

I’ve been thinking about this film lately, mostly because a large percentage of work time for many employees these days goes to appeasing the bureaucratic lions, tossing them bones and keeping them happy. It’s not an easy job, especially when the bureaucratic system is nothing but a dense jungle of incomprehensible rules and regulations that can choke the life out of most well-meaning employees. Case in point: you need an account number to order an instrument. You must talk to the accounting department that has its own rules and regulations concerning ordering and setting up an account number, but they haven’t talked to the order department that has its own rules and regulations concerning the same. Emails are sent back and forth, no one is on the same page, and weeks go by, even months. The accounting and ordering departments have the mistaken idea that all employees outside their departments actually understand accounting and ordering procedures and terminology. God help those employees if they make a mistake at any point along the way—if so, it’s ‘bless me father, for I have sinned’ against the great god of bureaucracy. If the system is insulted, it doesn’t take kindly to that. Atonement takes the form of listening to the functionaries’ lectures and demands of obedience to their rules, and generally being subservient to their wishes. I understand the need for bureaucracy in terms of keeping an organization ‘organized’ and running efficiently. I draw the line at having to toe their line, of having to jump when it tells you to jump. I draw the line when the system begins to feel like a totalitarian regime and when you actually become afraid to deal with it.   

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