“Alibaba is not just a job. It’s a dream. It’s a great cause.”
Alibaba.com founder Jack Ma (left) in Porter Erisman’s Crocodile in the Yangtze

With its theme of “Dare. Dream. Do.” the 15th Annual Dances With Films kicked off in Hollywood on Thursday night with another slate of independent features, documentaries, shorts and music videos from the U.S. and around the world.

Saturday night saw the LA premiere of Crocodile in the Yangtze, Porter Erisman’s unique fly on the wall look at the first global internet company to emerge from China with an emphasis on the company’s driven founder Jack Ma. As an American who had gone to China for adventure, learned the language and landed a position as a vice president of the budding internet start up, Erisman is able to give a rare first person account of a culture that in many ways remains a mystery to the west. He also makes a case for the power of the internet to level the playing field by offering economic opportunity to the world while also helping to bridge cultural barriers.

Central to the story is Jack Ma who learned English as a boy hanging out with western tourists and eventually became an English teacher himself. When he discovered the internet on a trip to the United States, Ma’s dream of bringing the internet to China and China to the internet was born. Crocodile in the Yangtze charts Ma’s early stop and start beginnings in the mid-90s as he encountered disinterest or opposition from both his government and the business community. Eventually though as the dot-com boom gripped the rest of the world, Ma’s online marketplace began to take hold and a showdown with US internet titan eBay ensued.

As his company became more and more successful growing from 16 to 16,000 employees, Ma seems to have inspired an increasingly cult-like devotion from his employees and in a way that includes Erisman himself. He’s honest in his appraisal of Ma and doesn’t flinch from the company’s failures or success, but there’s never any question where Erisman’s sympathies lie. Crocodile is a wonderful window into another world, but it could’ve been more powerful with a bit more of an outsider’s objectivity combined with Erisman’s own insider’s view. During the fight with eBay for example, eBay CEO Meg Whitman is given voice through snippets of speeches and interviews she made at the time, but getting her perspective now looking back would’ve added a whole other dimension to the film. It would’ve helped complete an already fascinating picture.

Still, Crocodile in the Yangtze is more content to be a sort of memoir rather than an expose and as such it works nicely. Erisman’s first-person encounter with a Chinese success story translates into a compelling and thought provoking look at the changing modern world.

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All material copyright 2007-2012 by Craig Kennedy unless otherwise stated