Hierarchy, bureaucracy and paperwork

Video-based ELT class on bureaucracy featuring clips from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy

France is a country that suffers somewhat from bureaucracy, excess paperwork and a rigidly hierarchical work culture. These issues are not unrelated. As a fonctionnaire in the Education Nationale I have suffered some absurd bureaucy to prove who I am to my own employer, processes which involve sending paperwork up the chain to be signed by those authorized to do so (i.e., the top brass). The fact that senior members of, say, the Human Resources department do not themselves have the authority to approve such documents is quite revealing: we are talking about a “top-down” culture here.

France is no doubt not the worst country in this respect although some of its systems can seem bewilderingly archaic and unnecessarily time-consuming. This is why it makes for an engaging subject of conversation for ELT classes here, especially for adults of a good B1 level or above. For this I have revisited films I have used in other classes here, notably the Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi Brazil (1985) and the screwball comedy it surely inspired, The Hudsucker Proxy by the Coen Brothers (1994).

Both films are great for ELT classes because they are rich in visual humour and imaginatively surreal visions of bureaucratic and hierarchical cultures. Evidence of the Coens’ debt to Gilliam can be found in the film’s mutual obsession for paperwork and, moreover, the retro-futurist pneumatic tube system used for transporting it from one office to another. Extraordinarily, this technology is not just the stuff of fiction but was once heralded as the future of communication. I found this handy little history of the pneumatic tube on Youtube that might interest your students:

Warm up

To set the scene, so to speak, have students discuss the following images in small groups. Both represent technological innovations made to handle information in the paper/pre-digital age.


By way of a task, get the students to discuss some gist questions (such as):

  • What do you think is shown in the pictures (who? what? where? when? how? etc.)
  • What connection do you think the pictures have?
  • How do the pictures make you feel?

Once they have finished sharing their ideas, solicit suggestions from the whole class, noting down useful vocabulary if possible. If the second picture proves too difficult, you could give more information (showing them the clip above if necessary).

Another clip I found on Youtube that might give a more detailed (albeit fantastical) visual resprentation of the latter technology is from the 1994 film The Shadow (below). Sadly the sound is missing, but it might be fun to get the students explaining how the technology works if you think it is useful. Otherwise, it could come in handy for another class.

Ideally you should have elicited concepts like paperwork and bureaucracy before moving on to the clips.

Clip analysis

Clip one

i. Show the students the first 18 seconds of the clip and have them discuss some gist questions (like those below) in small groups:

  • Describe the situation (who? what? where? when?)
  • Describe the atmosphere
  • What do you think has happened and why?
  • What do you think is going to happen next and why?
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?

ii. Show the rest of the clip and have them discuss the following:

  • What happens in the rest of the scene?
  • What do you think the man was trying to do?
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • Do you sometimes identify with the man and his actions? Why and when?

After each phase, solicit ideas from the class as a whole, sharing useful vocab and providing corrections if needed.

Clip two

i. Show the first 1’25” approx. of the second clip and have them discuss some gist questions (like those below) in small groups:

  • Describe the situation (who? what? where? when?)
  • Make a note of any dialogue you understand
  • Describe the atmosphere
  • What do you think is in the “blue letter”?
  • What do you think is going to happen next and why?
  • How does the scene make you feel and why?
  • What similarities or differences are there between the two clips?

NB: the goal of the exercise is not full comprehension of the dialogue but comprehension and discussion of what is shown. I tend to warn students that they might not understand everything but to make a note of anything that they do.

ii. Watch the scene from 2’23” approx. to the end and have them discuss some gist questions (like those below) in small groups:

  • Where does the man go?
  • Describe the different encounters the man has and the different reactions to the blue letter
  • How does the scene make you feel?

Follow up activities

You could do one or a combination of the following tasks:

  • Have students imagine and present what happens next in the second clip (What could be in the blue letter? What would the boss be like?)
  • Have students write and perform a role play between the Tim Robbins character and the boss to whom the blue letter is destined
  • Have students imagine and present a surreal and/or comic scene about bureaucracy, paperwork or hierarchy (which could also take the form of a role play)
  • Have a discussion like the one below:


  • Which of the three concepts below have you experienced in your life?
  1. excess paperwork
  2. bureaucracy
  3. hierarchical management
  • What are the worst examples of each that you have experienced?
  • Do you think your country has a particular problem with any of these concepts?
  • Do you think it has got better or worse in your professional life?
  • Do you think it is better or worse in other countries?
  • Do you think it will get better or worse in the future?

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