I first heard director Mark Achbar at the Toronto Film Festival after seeing his film The Corporation. “I’d like to thank the corporate sponsors,” he said to the audience, “Even though their sponsorship is a shallow ploy to put a human face on what is essentially a pathologically callous and harmful entity-we still appreciate the support.” His wry words were almost a precis of the movie: possibly the most direct and intense attack on corporations in film history, mixed with humour and a sense of irony.
Fast-forward three months and Achbar is in town picking up an award-one of many-for this remarkable film. In person he seems shy and gentle, completely devoid of the self-importance one would expect from an internationally recognized film director. Reminded of his thank-you speech at the festival, he says, “Yeah, at one point we were going to thank all the corporations that physically made the film possible, but the list just would’ve been too long, all the materials and services that went into the manufacturing and processing, transporting us. Top to bottom, you can’t escape. It’s the air we breathe.”
Achbar himself doesn’t characterize the movie as an attack on corporations. “We’re complicit, this is the paradigm we’re living. The film calls our attention to the water we’re swimming in collectively. Or drowning in, perhaps.”
An astonishing thing about the film is how it does this. It’s not a finger-wagging polemic; rather, through interviews with CEOs of some of the largest corporations in the world, a picture emerges of a machine gone out of control. Though the topic is depressing and serious, the film is anything but.
“I don’t think I’d know how to make a straight documentary,” Achbar offers. “I think in Manufacturing Consent (his 1993 film on linguist and contemporary political thinker Noam Chomsky) and in this film there’s a certain lightness of touch, a certain sardonic kind of wit that’s infused throughout. In Amsterdam people didn’t quite get the humour in the same way that audiences here did. The Dutch audience felt that this is a serious topic and we shouldn’t laugh. The third time I introduced the film at a festival there I said, ‘It seems that in Amsterdam people need to be given permission to laugh, even though the topic is serious. I hereby give you permission.’ So that got a laugh. And the whole film played very differently with that audience.”
Rather than vilify CEOs, the film focuses on something much deeper and problematic: corporations themselves. Legally they are people-immortal, super-powerful and without emotions.
“In the film, the CEO of Goodyear said outright: ‘If it was up to me and my own personal preferences, I would do things differently. But as CEO I can’t.’ So he’s explicit about what the role imposes on him in terms of behaving like a decent person, but the corporation has no imperative to behave decently,” Achbar explains.
“These guys didn’t strike me as evil. But you don’t know. I mean, they’re very polished interviewees. By the end of most of these interviews I was ready to buy stock in these people’s companies. They were so charming and persuasive and decent and amusing. I was ready to sign up! And then you have to take a walk around the block,” he says.
Does the filmmaker feel that the corporate paradigm is inescapable?
“Of course not, or we wouldn’t have made the film,” he declares. “To put six years of effort into making a film like this is de facto an expression of hope that things can change. I mean, it is not a mass call to suicide.
“If there’s one thing that we really want the film to do, it’s to initiate some kind of democratic debate. That is where change begins. People need to be reminded that they are the ones who are in a position to grant or restrict the power of corporations, that we as participants of a democratic society have that power, and I think we are not fully exercising that power these days.”
After all this, what does Achbar think people can do? “Well, I’m reluctant to prescribe action,” he laughs, “You know, the action I’d like to prescribe is: go see the film and get others to do the same-I think it’s a political act to go see the film in a mall like Canada Square. Help us put up posters. Relay e-mails to people in other cities… But in terms of more revolutionary action, I think that’s up to each individual to look at their own skill set, their own deep passions and concerns about the world.
“You have to realize you can’t do everything, you can’t be everywhere-you’ve gotta pick your battles, and as Noam [Chomsky] said in Manufacturing Consent, you’ve got to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”
For more information about the film, visit www.thecorporation.tv