Crazy Jack Ma rises from the bowels of an arena stage in dark lipstick, a pink Mohawk and a loose, elaborate leather jacket. A blimp soars through the smoky air above him as thousands of people scream, clap and snap photos.
Ma isn't a scrappy rocker performing for his adoring fans. Arguably, he's the opposite: an eccentric English teacher-turned-Internet entrepreneur belting out a few lines of Elton John's "Can You Feel The Love Tonight."
This scene of a company celebration is one of the most telling visuals in Porter Erisman's "docu-memoir" Crocodile in the Yangtze, about his time working in the marketing department at Ma's start-up, Alibaba.com, (and the spin-off, TaoBao, a Chinese version of eBay) which connects wholesale importers and exporters. The part-time Whistler resident joined the company's team just as they were moving out of Ma's apartment and into an office. When he left the position several years later, the business employed around 16,000 people.
"He was the first person in China, by all accounts, who started an Internet company," Erisman explained. "I would describe him as this very idealistic person. He doesn't consider himself a businessperson. He considers himself more of a creative person, an artist creating something."
The film, currently screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival, relies on footage shot exclusively during the company's rocky rise to its eventual success — including its fight with eBay as that company attempted to break into the Asian market—with Erisman's personal anecdotes and narration. It might sound like a film made for the Silicon Valley set, but Ma is a compelling enough character to capture a wider audience.
"When I would tell people (at home) I was making a film about my experience working with this Chinese Internet company people looked at me like I was crazy," Erisman said. "But it's an amazing story about an English teacher in his apartment who went on to battle eBay. The remarkable thing about it all is there were cameras following him at different times throughout the whole period I was there and some of it captured me and him together. I realized I had an opportunity to make a film about it."
With Ma's blessing, Erisman attempted to pen a book about his experience, but when he couldn't find a publisher he turned to film. He set out with a laptop equipped with editing software and video camera to shoot establishing shots of buildings, but soon discovered he had no idea how to cut film. "I felt like a complete idiot, basically," he recalled. "My friends were teasing me like, 'Oh here's Porter the filmmaker.' I couldn't even open the files on the computer."
Still hopeful, he enrolled in a month-long editing course at the New York Film Academy. There, he managed to persuade his instructor to help him piece together the story using 200 hours of footage from 35 sources between 1995 and 2009 that Ma had handed over. "When they started Alibaba in '99, I think maybe they were a little bit overconfident, but they said, 'Maybe we should film these first meetings and capture it because some day this will be important history of our company.' The equivalent is if you were sitting in Whistler and you're out at a pub one day and someone says, 'I started a website that's going to be bigger than Facebook,'" Erisman said.
But that unwavering confidence was part of his motivation for creating the film, he added.
"(Ma) is also fearless," he said. "Here's a guy with no experience in business and he would just walk into interviews on CNBC or go into a meeting with Bill Clinton and he's just a confident guy. I think (we should) all be like that, just go into any situation not worrying if you make a mistake, just do your best."
Erisman (originally from Denver) holed up in his Taluswood Bluffs home to edit the film, sending versions back and forth with his teacher-turned-co-editor. "Whistler was the perfect place because I could edit it and then when I needed creative inspiration I could go for a hike or go skiing and get some fresh air, come back and work on it some more," he said.
After earning "Best Documentary" at the San Francisco United Film Festival, and entry into several festivals across the U.S., Erisman wants to continue filmmaking. "It was a story I really wanted to share with people, but I always had a personal interest in transitioning into film," he said. "To do that when you're 22 is really risky. It's an all-or-nothing proposition. I was lucky that Alibaba did well, so now I have some savings and I can try different creative pursuits."