THE CORPORATION a film by Mark Achbar , Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott, produced by Achbar and Bart Simpson, with Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, Michael Moore and Milton Friedman. 165 minutes. Opens Friday (January 16) at the Bloor and Canada Square.
mark achbar hesitates when he talks, and rounds his vowels with the care of a good Canadian. He's circumspect and conditional. At one point he advances an idea, then breaks off to admit that he hasn't got a set rap. And yet this is the man who co-directed Manufacturing Consent, the Noam Chomsky doc that became a rite of passage for activists and culture jammers. "It's still playing in two theatres in Paris as we speak," he says.
And now he wants to bring down the most powerful human force on the planet.
Made with Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, Achbar's new film, The Corporation, aims to make visible what's fast become "the air we breathe." In interviews with everyone from Naomi Klein to economist Milton Friedman, it puts forward a simple notion. Since the corporation was born with the legal rights of a person, it should be judged as one. And based on its motives and its actions, the corporation is a psychopath.
Sly and persuasive as Achbar is in person, the film assesses corporate actions according to both the psych profession's Diagnostic And Statistical Manual IV and the World Health Organization's criteria for psychopathy.
"In either of those lists you only need to match three before you have a diagnosis," he says. "In the film, we've got six matches.
"It's a very useful metaphor," he continues. "It provokes a kind of critical distance from the institution. When I see some corporation laying off people or fined for some pollution offence, all of a sudden I've got a framework to see a behaviour that's quite consistent.
"Their goal isn't to harm," Achbar says. "Their goal is to serve their own ends. So not every corporation is destructive. But it has the capacity to be."
The film's logic is hard to argue with, but Achbar sees The Corporation as a very emotional piece. He says it started out as a much more cerebral exercise, almost an essay. He credits Abbott's editing for making the film more emotionally persuasive. Bakan has written a book to accompany the documentary.
"We wanted to make the institution as strange to others as it seems to us," he says. "We, collectively, allow corporations to exist. They exist at our pleasure, as it were. In democracies, we make the rules. Corporations go out of their way to dull that sense in us.
"For the most part, for people who watch the film, we're living pretty comfortable lives. We are quite consciously distanced from the consequences of many of our actions as they relate to the corporate world, especially as they relate to our consumption. That's one of the functions of the corporation," he says.
So far so good. But Achbar pushes the notion further. Maybe we've become "externalizing machines," just like corporations are.
And what's an externalizing machine again?
"If a polluting corporation can get the rest of society to pay for the health consequences of its pollution, it has externalized those costs onto the rest of us," he explains. "And we are encouraged to externalize..." This is where he falters.
"I dunno," he says, "maybe this isn't a good theory. Yeah, I don't have a standard rap for this. But it is possible that we are distanced from the consequences of our actions in the same way."
Achbar's greatest hope for the film is that it can help to shift the culture in the ways that Manufacturing Consent did.
He thinks this film may have even "more mainstream potential, because of the maturity of the filmmaking, in part, and because it has such a diversity of views. Even though the film has its own point of view, fully half the people in it are corporate insiders."
For Achbar, Abbott and Bakan, the film is "a call to action, but not a call to a specific action. I think you have to understand the problem before you can even begin to contemplate a solution."
He often debates with his co-director about what the best solution to corporate behaviour might be.
"Joel wants to build thicker bars on the cage that surrounds the corporation. He wants increased regulation and increased enforcement of that regulation," Achbar says.
"I want to change its DNA."