a film by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
written by Joel Bakan as an adaptation of his book
The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power
Narration written by Harold Crooks and Mark Achbar
This new documentary directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, written by Joel Bakan as an adaptation of his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, is another example of a new trend in film-making, most recently made popular in Michael Moore's Fahrenhiet 9/11. Although the trend in film goes back through documentarians at least as far as Frederick Wiseman in the 1960s, it is being pursued, in films such as the one under discussion here, with a new frankness and vitality.
This trend takes its rationale from metaphysics developed in hard science- recognizing the impossibility of true "objectivity" and the unavoidable influence that the act of "observing" has on events - to explore a new direction in communication technique. Instead of the traditional pose of the documentary film-maker as fly-on-the-wall, the newer practitioners of the craft seek full involvement and immersion in their subject matter, and frankly espouse a definite point of view.
Some people have branded such films (particularly those with which they tend to disagree) as "propaganda," but by the tradtional definition, they don't really qualify. The Oxford Dicitonary defines "propaganda" as: "Any association, systematic scheme or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine of practice".
But these films are by-and-large, indidvidual efforts, not part of any "association, systematic scheme or concerted movement." And although they certainly have a point of view - in some cases a passionately espoused point of view - they are not designed for the "propagation of a particular doctrine or practice."
They are closer to something called "advocacy journalism," the kind of combination of facts, interpretation and commentary we have come to expect on the Op-Ed pages of our newspapers. Unlike propaganda, such efforts are dedicated to supporting their position with documentable facts. Unlike propaganda, such communications, despite their definite perspective (or perhaps because of it?), invite a dialogue on the issues they address.
These films do seek to "convince" their audience - but they are designed to do so by getting viewers to ask questions, do research, analyse the arguments and the facts on which they are based, rather than simply browbeating or cheerleading us into submission. Like a good attorney, advocacy journalists work to put their point across, but also recognize their obligation to the truth in all its complexity and to the rules of human interaction, that put deliberate deception and misdirection out-of-bounds.
This can be a fine line - and one that opponents of a particular point-of-view can seize on to try to discredit a work. The argument that the authors are "not objective," that they fail to present "the whole story," or that the way the story is told - the juxtaposition of images and ideas - distorts the truth.
But the makers of this kind of documentary film are firmly grounded in their tradition. The power of documentary film-making has long been recognised and respected - it's distortion into true propaganda is an affirmation of how effective it is seen to be. But documentarians - even those who aspired to the strongest appearance of "objectivity" - have always recognized that "telling the story" lies at the heart of their craft.
All film-making, including documentary - is story-telling: introducing characters and situations; analysing their objectives and motivations; observing their confrontations with and reactions to obstacles and setbacks; and arriving at some sort of "resolution" to the situation. And the story-teller must, unavoidably, have a pont of view.
In an interview with David Walsh at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, pioneering American documentary film-maker Wiseman (Titticut Follies, High School) put it this way: "You have to edit the material. That assumes that some kind of a mind is operating in relation to the material. Not all minds are the same. Every aspect of filmmaking requires choice. The selection of the subject, the shooting, editing and length are all aspects of choice.
" For me it's critical in anything that I do, I have to figure out why I'm doing it. If I'm writing a letter, I want to make my points clearly, in a way that is suitable for the letter. In a sense, the process is related to anybody that does anything. Whether you're a newspaper journalist, a lawyer, a doctor. You have to organize your thoughts."
Louis Menand quotes Wiseman in his August 11, 2004 New Yorker article Nanook and Me, (an extended discussion of this issue of "reality" and the documentary) as saying: "All the material is manipulated so that the final film is totally fictional in form although it is based on real events," and it is only the unsophisticated film-viewer - and the most gullible and most at risk of being taken in by propaganda - who does not recognize the truth of Wiseman's words.
One of the chief differences between the new style of documentary and the older is that in the new style, the process of making those choices - of "organizing one's thoughts" is both revealed and embraced. There is no pretence of "objectivity" - although there is an obvious undertaking to be factual and honest. This commitment takes the place of "fairness" - which is a confused and confusing concept in this context.
To take an extreme example, is a documentary like Claude Lannzmann's monumental Shoah "fair" to the Nazis? Does it present their side of the story? Should we expect a film that is about the experiences of surviviors of the Holocaust to even try to present their persecutors and jailers in a "evenhanded" way? If not, then the concepts of "fairness" and "objectivity" have to be redefined for this genre of "advocacy journalist documentary."
All of this being said, The Corporation actually does strive to give a very broad view of its subject, while clearly proposing and arguing for a particular thesis of its own. That thesis - taken from Bakan's book, plays with the legal fiction established in US law over the past century that Corporations are, for legal purposes, "people." If that is so Bakan asks, what sort of people are they?
Using the "corporation as person" fiction, they then perform an extended metaphorical "psychological analysis" of "the corporate person" based on "case studies" of the "person's" behavior.
Interviews with both "reformed" and unrepentant corporate CEOs make up much of the film's text, and it is interesting that their ambivalent support of the corporations of which they are or have been part is almost the mirror image of the film-maker's somewhat ambivalent criticism.
Not to spoil the supense, but the conclusion is prefigured in the sub-title of the book on which the film is based: "The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power." It is the evidence presented and the insight into corporate structure (as an analog for personality structure) that are the most interesting and intriguing aspect of the film, rather than the "clinical judgement" passed.
The use of the medical model allows the film-makers to discuss the failings of corporate structure - where profit and power trump all - as a concrete - and possibly treatable - "personality disorder," rather than as an issue of "good and evil." Thus, the personable, apparently-reasonable CEO of Royal Dutch Shell can be seen as what he is - not a "bad" person (which he clearly isn't) - but one in the grip of a "psychotic" disconnect when it comes to his company's actions.
This approach not only breaks down some defenses - by recognizing that it is not useful to "condemn" those who give their lives and energy to corporate structure, any more than it is useful to condemn the mentally-ill person for their condition - and putting the responsibility for coming up with a "treatment plan" (to extend the film's metaphor) squarely on the audience.
At one point, an analogy is drawn between the Corporation and Frankenstein's Monster. Both creations are attempts to "improve" the world, to overcome limtiations of the human condition for the benfit of all - which have gone dangerously off-course. Unlike Mary Shelley, The Corporation doesn't suggest that death in the frozen wastes is the only possible fate for both creator and monster.
In the concluding sequence, an interview with Michael Moore underlines the fact that we are the "creators" and enablers of corporate culture and that we have both the power and the responsibility to make the changes necessary to "heal" the damage done by the current state of affairs. We are both patient and therapist, the film suggests, and we need to act on that realization if we really want change.
The structure of the film is a bit disjointed - and therefore less effective than it might have been. It is laced with inter-titles that suggest a logical progression of arguments, but turn out to be simply distracting, since the actual structure is much more mosaic. As the film hops about from topic to topic and from style to style without consistent coherence, the audience is confused into trying to connect the "chapter headings" with what they are actually seeing on the screen.
The filmmakers combine archival footage with interviews and eyewitness film and video in a way that has been effective in many documentaries, but these elements are less well-developed and connected here than they are in the best films of this genre. It may be that the writers and filmmakers were so familiar with the material that they didn't feel they had to connect the dots too explicitly.
This may be true for some audiences, but it introduces confusion for viewers who may not have the same frame of reference. The "Bhopal" allusion, for instance, is more or less "thrown-away,' although I doubt that a large percentage of Americans, especially those under 30 (who can't by-and-large even name five Canadian provinces or pick out France on an un-labeled map of Europe) know any of the details of that disaster.
It is the very scope of the film - its attempt to be comprehensive in a relatively short time - that becomes a stumbling block. This is basically a writing problem. The film-makers might have done better to limit themselves to one or two "case histories" and explore them in a depth that would be accessible even to the "uninitiated," and then link those to others - rather than seeking to develop its "case" with such a huge range and proliferation of evidence that it becomes ultimately confusing and distracting.
But the "Advocacy Journalist Documentary" is alive and well in this film. Like a good editorial (only one that is a bit awkwardly constructed, and filled with too much information), The Corporation makes a case for its point of view that brings the powerfully communicative elements of film into the process, without resorting to deceit or emotional manipulation.
The tentative (but very powerful and innovative) first steps of Fredrick Wiseman are now turning into self-assured strides, as film-makers seek to connect with an audience that wants information and stimulation to action as much as they want "dis-info-tainment."
And The Corporation, while not as emotionally engaging as Fahrenheit 9/11, manages to make its somewhat drier and more scholarly exploration lively and engaging, as the basis of further study, debate and action rather than as a pronouncement. It is a film well worth seeing.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z