DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Greed Is Good?; Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar Talk About “The Corporation”
by Adam Hart
[EDITORS NOTE: Adam Hart spoke with Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar last June, about “The Corporation,” the film will be released on DVD this week (April 5, 2005).]
The premise of “The Corporation” is simple: if a corporation legally has the same rights as a human being, then it should be treated as one. Filmmakers Mark Achbar (who directed with Peter Wintonick the Noam Chomsky documentary “Manufacturing Consent”) and Jennifer Abbott, along with author Joel Bakan (who wrote a book on the same subject), have attempted to pin down this vaguely defined entity at the center of modern business practice and give it a full psychological evaluation. The results are not promising. The archetypal corporation, they’ve found, has no concern for the welfare of others, is consistently deceitful, commonly breaks with socially and legally-acceptable practices, and feels no remorse.
According to the definition found in the DSM-IV, the standard reference guide for mental disorders, the modern corporation meets every characteristic of a psychopath. The film’s great strength is that, although its structure comes in such broad (though often terribly insightful) strokes, the bulk of the film is not an attempt to depict corporations in any one, demonic way. Instead, the film is an investigation into the exact nature of the beast, as told largely by those who know it best: CEOs, business professors, stockbrokers. There are the requisite interviews with such visible lefties as Naomi Klein, Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Michael Moore, who very articulately help to contextualize corporate practices within a more global scale, but their contributions are kept to a minimum. The result is a thoroughly justified, common-sense condemnation of contemporary business practices. CEOs and company directors approach their companies as if they’re manufacturing money, as opposed to tires, carpets, or oil. The corporation is viewed as an abstract concept that, of course, affects the world in millions of very concrete ways. Watching “The Corporation” is in many ways a frustrating experience, but the film is pervaded by a sense of tired, though undying optimism. And it is utterly fascinating.
The following interview is a composite of a sit-down discussion with Jennifer Abbott and email correspondence with Mark Achbar. The film plays Sunday in New York as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, it is now playing in select cities in California and will open in Seattle on June 18 and in New York on June 30, with more cities to follow in July.
indieWIRE: Firstly, what is your conception of a corporation?
Mark Achbar: The corporation is a legal construct that allows people to concentrate capital, do business, and be irresponsible for the actions the corporation takes in their name. It’s an irresponsibility machine. It’s a license to amplify the worst aspects of human nature, to exploit, to harm — even kill — in the name of shareholders. One image that comes to mind is hundreds of Magritte’s businessmen with bowler hats on, but instead of blank faces or apples for heads, they each have a gaping great white shark’s open mouth full of crooked teeth, and they all have body parts sticking out and blood dripping down their nice white shirts.
iW: How did the project get started?
Achbar: It was March 1997. I was at a memorial service for the sister of a family friend. A grim circumstance, but it’s where I met Joel Bakan, a law professor from the University of British Columbia. Joel knew my past work, “Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and the Media,” made a decade ago with Peter Wintonick, but I didn’t know he was a former Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Oxford and Harvard. In our brief conversation, his brilliance and dark sense of humor became evident. We commiserated about the death, which led us to discuss death and suffering elsewhere in the world, the impacts of globalization and how corporations were taking on the role of governments. I wanted to make a film, Joel wanted to write a book, and shortly thereafter, we decided to collaborate. Jennifer joined the team once we got filming a few years later. Seven years after we began, Joel’s book hit the bestseller list and our film became the first Canadian feature documentary to gross over a million dollars at the box office.
iW: At what point did you become involved?
Jennifer Abbott: I was working with Mark in 1999 on a project called “Two Brides and A Scalpel: Diary of A Lesbian Marriage” — a video diary about the first legally married lesbian couple in Canada. They were married as a heterosexual couple and then one had sex reassignment surgery and they became a lesbian married couple and made news headlines. I was editing it out of Mark’s studio, in his home. At that time treatments had been written and funds were being raised for “The Corporation.” My background is in political science — I did radical political thought and women’s studies — so Mark and I have very similar philosophies politically, and a very similar film aesthetic. At that time we were working well together, so I came on board originally to edit “The Corporation.” Then I started consulting on the project as production was starting and it became apparent that I was co-directing and so I started to actually co-direct as well. That was just as production was getting underway.
iW: With you making the movie and Joel writing the book, in what ways did you collaborate — on research, or on the direction of the film, for example?
Achbar: We hammered out an initial development proposal. The first one was full of material cut and pasted from a number of sources. Stories from all over the map. A lot of generalizations. A lot of speculation about what could be. Joel and I talked a lot; I asked a lot of questions, he had a lot of answers, and he wrote reams of subsequent treatments and proposals, each more refined than the previous, which contained many idealized scenarios and a growing wish list of interview subjects. As we refined our funding proposal, Joel was also working out the broad strokes of what would become his book, “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.” The two projects co-evolved. Joel was its conceptual architect whereas my role in the early stages as director and producer was to identify stories that could work in film, how we might visualize each point, and how the hell we were going to pay for it. About three years into the process, Jennifer would join the team and begin to make real the visualizations through the editing. Being a child of two psychologists and having earned his first degree in psychology, Joel had expressed the idea of the corporation as a psychopath; but exactly how that would manifest in the film itself was determined only in the final stages of editing, many years later.
We had a number of stories around privatization and deregulation and we knew that we were going to look at the relationships between the human beings within the corporation and the corporation itself. The anti-globalization movement was coalescing and we wanted to look at what people were doing in response to “corporate rule.” We had a metastructure: What is the nature of the institution? What are the problems that have arisen from it? And what are people doing in response? Within that, we had identified most of the key points that we hoped to make along the way, and it became a question of who can we get who would best make this point or that? What story would work? Is the story contained historically, or is it unresolved? Is it too unresolved to work as a story? Does it have visual potential? Are the characters compelling? Can we get high-level insiders to comment?
When it came time to do the interviews, we began with Joel as interviewer. I was to direct the technical aspects of the shoots. It turned out that when Joel got together with other super-smart people, the result was sometimes a little too esoteric. They would use a vocabulary and assume background knowledge that would have left the average viewer in the dust. Also, as a trained lawyer, Joel’s interview technique was often designed to get a simple “yes” out of the interview subject. Good for witness stand. Not good for movie. So, plainspoken BFA grad that I am, I ended up doing most of the other interviews with the exception of a few key ones done by Dawn Brett, our associate producer, who had negotiated access and developed a relationship with certain people she wanted to follow through with in an interview setting. But once we got our system down, all of us, Dawn, Joel, Jennifer, and I would all put our two cents worth into the formulation of the questions. Which usually meant way too many questions and sometimes very long (sometimes four-hour) interviews.
iW: Perhaps the most interest aspect of the movie is that the audience hears from the other side, what might be called the “corporation’s point of view.” A good portion of the interviews are made up of CEOs and other business insiders, sometimes admitting pretty damning stuff. How did you get them involved in the project?
Abbott: Well, we had a wonderful associate producer and researcher, Dawn Brett, and she was the one who made the original contact with many of the corporate insiders. She’s a real people person, and she’s not afraid to ask anything of anyone. We got the interview with [Nobel Prize-winning economist] Milton Friedman very early in the game, which I think helped us because when we wrote our initial letters we were able to say that we had interviewed Milton Friedman and that did give the project a great deal of legitimacy. And then as we got another CEO, Sam Gibara, he agreed very early. We could say, “We have Milton Friedman and Sam Gibara,” and that just domino-ed. Then, it was almost that a corporation wanted to be involved because they wanted that exposure. I did sense very generally that there are two kinds of corporate insiders. There are those who agree there are some problems, are not so defensive that they’re unwilling to talk about it, who also believe that it’s important for their corporation to appear to be transparent and appear to be in dialogue with critics. Those are the kinds of CEOs that are willing to be interviewed for a project like this. Then I do believe there are also the CEOs who are really unwilling to engage with these issues, and they’re harder to gain access to.
iW: Did you plan from the beginning to include those sorts of interviews?
Achbar: Absolutely. We always wanted the corporate point of view. It was essential and was called for in our earliest proposals. I just don’t see how the film could be interesting without it. Otherwise you have a rant… Not everyone comes out smelling like roses, but they were treated fairly and with respect. And it’s better to put your own view forward than have someone else talking for you or about you. And we weren’t out to “get” anybody. We were out to “get at” the nature of this institution. We were trying to reveal the truth about how this institution works. That must have come through in our tone and in our questions because most people were extremely forthright.
iW: Did you have to, not hide, but at least be kind of surreptitious about where you were coming from?
Abbott: I don’t think you can misrepresent yourself, as professional documentary makers. I think we were open about our project. Now, that said, there’s no need to give away other things. For example, when you do an interview you don’t generally give the person the interview questions beforehand. People don’t expect that degree of information. So, when we would approach people we would say that we’re doing a documentary about the modern day business corporation. Their PR people were absolutely able to ask us any questions they wanted to and we would answer them honestly. I don’t think we misrepresented ourselves. At the same time, Mark, because he’s associated with “Manufacturing Consent,” didn’t say, “I’m the maker of ‘Manufacturing Consent,'” but if people wanted to go online they’d see in a second that his name is attached to that film.
iW: You ask several of the interviewees whether or not what they do is moral. Mostly their response is “I don’t know if it’s moral or not, I’m just doing my job.” It seems that all the tasks are really separated from their consequences. Do you see any sort of solution to this problem?
Achbar: Milton Friedman would say it’s up to each person who owns or works for a corporation to behave morally. To him, that’s where the institution holds its moral center. It’s not so much a question of forcing the staff of corporations to behave responsibly as it is creating a set of laws — a regulatory system — that looks out for the public good in a meaningful way.
Abbott: The corporation itself does not have morals, per se. It is a legal fiction, a legal construct. It doesn’t have feelings the same way a building doesn’t have feelings, which is a point Milton Friedman makes. So the corporation itself is neither moral nor amoral. It has a legal imperative to put profit above everything, including the public good. The people who operate within the corporation have to follow that legal mandate, and that’s a big problem, because it’s an absurd situation to have the dominant institution of our day have to prioritize profit above the public good. I think that what that does to people’s individual morality within the corporation is that it trumps it. So we have Sam Gibara, CEO of Goodyear, openly saying that as a CEO you cannot do what you would do if you had your own personal choice, and that’s a problem. As a solution, I think that what’s called the “best interest principle” needs to be carefully examined. Hopefully there will be some legal precedents to rewrite that legal mandate.
iW: Have you heard any reactions from people involved in the film, any of the interview subjects?
Abbott: Yes, for sure. We just got an email from Samuel Epstein, who loves the film. Ray Anderson came to Sundance with us and got a standing ovation, and he’s been very positive. We’ve had a lot of responses from people you would think would like the film. As far as somebody that might not come off well in the film — not, I might add, because we hang them because I really think that we treated the different subjects fairly, and it’s really important to me that that happened — but Michael Walker from the Fraser Institute just hung himself in the film. We haven’t heard from anyone like that.
iW: What kind of reactions have you gotten from the business community about the film? Have you been accused of being too one-sided?
Achbar: That depends how you define “the business community.” Take the business press. A magazine called Canadian Business for example; their attitude was, “like it or not, here comes this really interesting analysis.” The Wall Street Journal — which gave us a prominent place on the cover of the “B” section — effectively said, “even though it’s a totally grim portrait of the corporate world, for some strange reason, people are still really interested in seeing this film.” My favorite is The Economist, which really got the film. It gave an accurate account of the film’s content, and said, “People on both sides of the globalization debate should pay attention. Unlike much of the soggy thinking peddled by too many anti-globalizers, ‘The Corporation’ is a surprisingly rational and coherent attack on capitalism’s most important institution.” Now that’s high praise.
Abbott: I think that anybody who believes that so-called objectivity in media is possible is naive. Most media has a point of view, it’s just not as obvious because it’s so submerged in mainstream values, which frequently are corporate values. We are very clear that we have a point of view. We’ve had a lot of business papers or even business television saying, “It could have been a left-wing diatribe, but it isn’t. It could have been a polemic, but it isn’t.” And all these businesspeople are saying that. My father’s a businessperson, and while I was making the film he did express concern to me that someone of my political orientation was making this film, but he loves it and he sends out press releases to all his business friends and they love it. He’s someone who really thinks that it is a fair documentary. So every now and then we get criticism, but for the most part, from the people you’d expect we’d get that criticism from, we don’t get it. One of the reasons is that, in many ways, the most damning criticisms of the corporation come from corporate insiders.
iW: Do you have any specific hopes for what this film will accomplish?
Abbott: I think that as a filmmaker, I think that one of my goals is to make the familiar appear strange, to shift perspectives, to get people to ask questions that aren’t being asked, and this issue in particular, without question the most pressing issue of our day, Corporate dominance of people and the earth literally could change life as we know it. So my motivation is to try to contribute, even in a very small way, to shifting that future, which possibly could be very bleak. So, if viewers walk away from the film asking questions about society that for the most part aren’t being asked in mainstream media, finding their answers and acting on those, that’s very gratifying for me.