TIFF Interview: Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan Talk “The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel”

Informative documentaries about big corporations are like blockbusters involved in deciphering the manipulation, mind games and control, instead of the usual fights, guns and killing.

Rarely documentaries offer a follow-up, as what else can be said that was not said before?

However, with massive information in hand, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan return after their first eye-opening “The Corporation” that was shot in 2003.

The new one named, “The Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” may sound like a comedy, however, it is as scary as it could get, clever, concise and shocking. As there are lots to be said after what you may see very soon, I would leave it up to you to learn how advanced Corporations have become in taking over this world completely. My interview with directors Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan will shed light on to so many pressing questions which I am glad they answered in the exact manner you would expect.

This is why I am pleased to present the below coverage for you to go through, learn and get educated. But make no mistake, reading the interview is not the same as watching the film, and it should be seen by anyone who wants to be aware of their surroundings. 

MOVIEMOVESME: Why did it take so long, like 17 years, to make the sequel of “The Corporation”?

Joel Bakan: We started in about 2014. That was around the time that we had the 10th anniversary screening of the first film, The Corporation. And what I realized is we had made the first film in order to challenge corporate capitalism. But 10 years later, corporate capitalism was more powerful, stronger than it had ever been. And the problems that we have been looking at, climate change, racial and economic inequality, environmental destruction, the corrosion of democracy, all these problems were even worse. But at the same time, corporations were saying that they were better, that they cared about society now. So, that struck me as a real contradiction and I started to do academic work because I’m a legal scholar, and I quickly thought that this justified doing a sequel, both the book and film, because things had really gotten out of control in terms of corporate domination in the world.

Jennifer Abbott: And I’ll just add to that because it’s quite a different perspective that, for me, that was… I don’t think for any of us, there was an inevitability that we would do a sequel. I resisted the idea, to begin with, partially just because the first film was just such a monster of a film to wrestle to the ground. I went to one of the directors and I was also the editor of that film, and I cut it from 400 hours of footage. So, cutting back into another film that might be similarly huge was not something that I was going to do completely wholeheartedly without a lot of convincing. But then, what happened for me was that Donald Trump was elected. And while in many ways, qualitatively, that really didn’t shift too many things, what did shift was that the veil was taken down. There was no longer the pretence that corporations and governments were acting independently, and they were redoing the system in the favor of the plutocratic class before our eyes. And so, that’s the moment for me there were compelling reasons to undertake the sequel.

MOVIEMOVESME: The documentary is very informative. How did you get all that information? It is quite impressive.

Joel Bakan: Yeah. I mean, as a legal scholar, research is what I do, and as a filmmaker, the same for Jen, the kind of films that she makes. And so, it was a long process. I mean, we started in 2014 and it was a case of just researching, reading, but also always thinking about the larger narrative and the larger argument that we were making, and thinking very hard about what are some contemporary and compelling stories, whether it’s what you’re talking about, the algorithm that decides who can get a job, or it’s private for-profit schools in Africa. I mean, these are stories that really tell the larger story that we’re trying to tell. And so, I mean, in a way, a film like this, it’s about so much. It’s so broad in its scope that the harder challenge is to think about what not to include because every morning you can pick up the newspaper and 70% of the articles in it will have some relevance to what we’re doing in the film.

So, it was really a question of doing lots of research, trying to find those stories that were very contemporary and that might be unknown to people, but that also served a larger purpose of moving the larger argument forward.

MOVIEMOVESME: Based on the concept of this documentary, do you think corporates really want us to succeed or are we just needed to continue to remain a source of labor for them, to continue enriching them?

Jennifer Abbott: Well, I think that’s a great question and unfortunately it would seem like they aren’t really prioritizing the best interests of most people, even though it would seem that that would be in their best interest because if you have a robust middle class, you obviously have a population that can purchase your goods.

It’s very interesting, we interviewed a billionaire venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer and he wrote a little book. I’m not sure exactly the title, the pitchforks are… It has pitchforks in it, anyway. And he speaks about how if corporate capitalist culture continues to deny people a living wage, that that is really only going to lead to an uprising. And that is actually… He argued as a capitalist that it’s in their best interest to actually work with us, to work towards a system that is fair for everybody. But sadly, it just seems like the imperative to increase shareholder value, to make a profit supersedes all. And I think that can easily be empirically proven just through statistics that chart the vast inequalities that we see in society today.

MOVIEMOVESME: Jennifer has mentioned earlier that it was massive information, over a thousand hours, but you needed to shorten it. How much more information have you left out of the film?

Joel Bakan: Well, I mean, needless to say in a film like this, as I was noting, I mean, there is so much that could be included. We’re talking about everything in this film because the subject matter, literally touches everything; racial injustice, climate, the environment, human rights, safety at work, wages at work, the workplace, the middle class, all of it. It’s all in there. And so, needless to say, our job, I think, is to try to create what might be called the meta story, and to make sure that the particular stories that we use serve the purpose of helping move that larger story along. And so inevitably, my hope is that somebody can see something that we left out of the film, either that’s happened before in history or that’s happening now, or that’s happening in the future, and understand how the film’s argument and point of view inform that story.

So, needless to say, we can’t include everything, but what we can do is provide a framework that will enable people to look at other stories and see where they might bend. So, I think that’s our primary goal.

MOVIEMOVESME: Some people may be skeptical about your film or the information you have provided. If you had a chance, what would you tell them? They may think that it’s another conspiracy theory being spread by certain individuals.

Jennifer Abbott: I mean, certainly there are some people who will not be receptive to reflecting upon the content of our film, and we can’t do anything about that. All we can do and all we… Not all, what we are committed to at the highest level is making sure that we research and fact-check fastidiously. And we did that. And I will say also, Joel wrote a book, The New Corporation: How “Good” Corporations Are Bad for Democracy, which Joel can speak to personally, but because he did so much research and is such a rigorous scholar and academic, we feel we have a lot of confidence that what we’re presenting is accurate, and that’s just essential. So, we can’t control the viewers who simply have already made up their mind. But, I think that actually, that’s a fairly small percentage of the population.

Joel Bakan: Well. I mean, it’s the old problem that goes back a long time. Karl Marx talked about it as false consciousness. The way that he talked about it was that the working class didn’t construct themselves as a collective force, but simply saw themselves as individual work and that it was necessary, in his view, to create class consciousness, to create a sense of who workers were collectively and what their objective relations were with capitalism. And I think it’s always a problem. It’s not new to the Trump era, that the way people see the world is very much determined by their social place within it, by the education that they’ve received, by what their parents have taught them, by what corporations are telling them through advertising and marketing and through being coercive bosses at work, telling them, “Unions aren’t good for you,” or whatever it happens to be. And that we need to have fewer regulations so we can have more jobs, and unions take away jobs and on and on and on.

Or that, immigrants and migrants are taking away our jobs. So, there are all of these narratives that swirl around and that constitute political action. And I think your question is a really important one because it’s hard to know what to do about it, except to try to put more narratives out there that are grounded in truth, that are grounded in reason, and that are grounded in appealing to people’s true sense of who they are as human beings. And it’s part of the reason why I like working in the medium of film, because unlike an academic article, or even an article in a magazine or a book or whatever, it gets out to a large number of people and it appeals not just to their heads, but also to their hearts and to their feelings. I think as cultural workers, I think we just have to keep doing this and trying to get some semblance of truth into a world that is swirling with falsehoods.

MOVIEMOVESME: A majority of people go to work, come back home, turn on the TV or YouTube, streaming something, browse online and that’s their entire life. Do you think that people don’t believe that they can achieve something big themselves and are actually the ones helping corporates get bigger and richer?

Jennifer Abbott: Well, there’s a lot in that question that we could try and unravel. And one of them would be why is it that many people are feeling complacent, and probably depressed, and not motivated to strive for a more engaged, more meaningful life. So in many instances, it’s really not their fault. A lot of people have had very difficult lives, and a lot of people have very difficult lives because of corporate capitalism. So, I feel I have a great deal of compassion for people who are stuck, if you will. But, we have to ask why are… And it’s not a new thing either, of course.

Another thing I think that’s very important to reflect on is, what is the dominant ideology which is purporting and defining who we are as human beings and what we consider a meaningful life? And for 40 years now, with the rise of neoliberalism or a corporate ideology, we’ve been taught that we can find meaning through consumption. We are primarily individualistic and out for ourselves. And we have really lost in many arenas, the route to citizen engagement, or even to community engagement. And then of course, on top of all of that, we have an economic system, which is oppressive to so many people. The rise of the gig economy and wages not keeping up with inflation, et cetera, et cetera, and the increasing gap between rich and poor.

So, there’s this economic oppression that is overlaid, this ideological layer. And those two together are very potent forces to have to overcome. So, I guess if we look at our film, we really hope that for people that may be in scenarios that you described in your question, that it’s a tool for them to understand the world better, and also to know that their situation in many instances is not their fault, and that this is not the way it has to be. So, we hope our film provides the tools to reflect upon society this moment in time, and hopefully inspire them to feel like they can make a difference. They can have a meaningful life. They can aspire to other things.

MOVIEMOVESME: In the United States, the biggest issue is obviously racism and police brutality. But there is also a lack of education, jobs, and a poor healthcare system. While there is a lot to protest about, it seems, only racial issues tend to get people on to the streets. Do you think this also a part of a bigger plan to control people’s mind and dictate to them what they can and what they cannot protest about?

Joel Bakan: Yes. I mean, I don’t think it’s that corporations necessarily are controlling it all. I think it’s a very complicated issue as to what gets people into the streets in any given time, and where you are. I mean, for example, in France, people go into the streets over economic issues, student protest, protest for healthcare fairly frequently, and in other places in Europe. But, the United States, not so much. Racial issues tend to get people on to the street.

I think what we try to show in our film is that over the last 20 years or so, there has been some mass protest against corporations. There was the whole Occupy movement and the movement of the squares around the world. There were people activating around economic issues with Bernie Sanders and other politicians. And I think what we wanted to show with the fallout from George Floyd getting brutally killed by police, was that many of these protests were in fact… it was triggered by that event, but the protest quickly expanded to include issues like healthcare, to include issues like why are the police getting so much funding almost like an army with their equipment, while nurses are wearing garbage bags, because there’s no money to provide protective equipment? So, there was a way, and there is a way in which these issues of race, of inequality, economic inequality are coming together, connected to some of the issues around economic inequality that Bernie Sanders leveraged. And after him, some politicians like AOC connected to indigenous struggles over land and the environment.

And I think, on the one hand, I completely hear your point, that if we were really thinking rationally, we should be out in the streets every day, because this society is so unjust in so many ways, there are so many things to protest. But on the other side of it, I think people are scared to protest because they’re seeing crackdowns on protesters. I think people don’t have the time and energy to protest because they’re working two shifts just to pay the rent and feed their kids. They’re working 16 hours a day, that were not encouraged to protest because we’re mollified with consumerism and with watching YouTube, as you suggested. There are all kinds of things that work against citizen engagement where we really need citizen engagement.

 So, I guess I would hope to look at the glass being half full rather than half empty and say, when we get a moment where there’s a spark, where people are just so angry about the injustice, let’s hope and let’s try to take that sense of injustice and spread it over all these other issues as well, and show how it’s connected to all these other issues. And that’s very much what we tried to do in the film, both with COVID and with the George Floyd situation, is to show these are actually bigger problems that reflect bigger problems that have been in place for a long time, and that we really need to address.

The New Corporation has some more upcoming festival premieres:

Calgary International Film Festival (September 23, 2020 – October 4, 2020)Vancouver International Film Festival (September 24 – October 9, 2020)
Lunenburg Doc Fest (September 24 – 30, 2020)
With more festivals in Canada, USA and Europe to be announced.

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