Published on Friday, January 30, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Anti-Corporation Rant Catches On
by Judy Stoffman
When The Corporation had its Canadian premiere at the Bloor Cinema on Jan. 16, it brought the house down.
The Bloor's falling ceiling forced the audience to leave without seeing the end of the 2 1/2-hour movie, marring the occasion, but it proved to be the only thing inauspicious about the launch of this deft documentary by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan of Vancouver.
The film has since won the Audience Award as best documentary at the recent Sundance film festival, was named one of the 10 best Canadian films by the Toronto International Film Festival, is playing to packed houses in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, and will be aired as a miniseries over three weeks on TVO, starting on Feb.25.
Yesterday the producers inked a deal with American distributor Zeitgeist Films, which expects to open the film in the States in June.
"I still have a piece of the ceiling; I carry it around as a memento," says Bakan, a 44-year-old law professor at the University of British Columbia.
It is his involvement as the film's writer that ensured the analytical framework and intellectual heft absent in the similarly incendiary documentaries of Michael Moore (who also appears in The Corporation).
The film examines the legal fiction that the shareholder-owned corporation is a person and asks what kind of a person it is. We see Bechtel, a California engineering company deprive poor Bolivian peasants of clean water; Monsanto selling a bovine hormone that poisons the milk supply; a giant media company killing an important story to protect ad revenues.
In its deceitfulness, lack of conscience, inability to sustain relationships or take responsibility, the corporation is diagnosed a psychopath.
The metaphor comes readily to Bakan, whose parents are both psychologists.
The business school at the University of Western Ontario is developing a study unit around the film, another in France has invited Bakan to speak, and Harvard Business School has made inquiries.
Next month Bakan's book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit Of Profit And Power will be published here by Penguin Books Canada and by the Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in the U.S.
What's unusual is that the book is not based on the movie and the movie is not based on the book; rather the two are twins, developed from the same embryo simultaneously.
Bakan has known filmmaker Mark Achbar since 1997. "We met at the buffet table at a reception. I was at that time thinking about writing a scholarly look at corporations and markets, and we began talking. Mark told me he was thinking of a film about globalization," recalls Bakan on the telephone from Vancouver.
"I don't think it was coincidental we were both thinking along these lines," he says. "It was around this time that many people noticed that corporations were being transformed."
For some time, deregulation had removed barriers for corporations, while the ongoing privatization of government agencies expanded their scope.
Bakan and Achbar decided to work in parallel. "What's unique about this project is we look not at any particular corporation but at the institution," Bakan says.
The film was edited from 450 hours of interviews and archival material by Jennifer Abbott into an entertaining whole. Its youthful audiences tend to misread it as a call for dismantling all corporations, but Bakan's aim is for more effective government regulation.
"Film is a medium that doesn't lend itself to perscriptive elements," he says. "In the book I make the point that there are many things people can do, like lobbying for better regulatory standards. I do believe it's time to reinvigorate the regulatory state, try to re-establish democratic control and accountability for corporations. A fundamental message of the book is that corporations are chartered and created by governments and they can't exist without empowerment of legislatures and courts ..."
A personal tragedy emerges in the book's acknowledgements. During the making of the film, Bakan's wife Marlee, who shared all his ideas, died of cancer, leaving him with a young son. (He is now engaged to marry the actress Rebecca Jenkins, who was with him at Sundance.)
The Corporation, both book and movie, is a distinctly Canadian product. "Canadians have a unique perspective on the U.S. and lot of what happens here emanates from the U.S.," Bakan says. "We are knowledgeable about it, but not a part of it."
B.C. Film Development Corporation, Telefilm Canada, and TVO were supporters of the project, rankling some U.S. filmmakers at Sundance when Bakan and Achbar tweaked the festival for excessive corporate sponsorships.
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