Corporations are as psychopathic as ever but they’ve got better at pretending they’re not
Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel Now playing, Landmark Cinemas
Seventeen years ago the Canadian documentary The Corporation proved a once-controversial thesis: if corporations were people, they would be psychopaths. Now that they’ve rebranded themselves as good citizens — environmentally mindful, woke even — the team behind the award-winning doc decided it was time for another look.
Sure enough, The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel establishes with unimpeachable clarity how making money for shareholders remains the goal (by law).
The challenge is seducing a more socially conscious public to get their money.
In the first movie, the corporation’s psyche was dissected using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This time, co-directors Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott uncover corporations’ playbook to increase earnings while manipulating governments, the financial system and consumers.
The starting point? Present yourself as a friend and ally.
Whenever not involved in documentaries about soulless entities or writing about them, Joel Bakan is an associated professor of Constitutional Law at the University of British Columbia (both Corporation films are based on books authored by him).
I talked with Bakan the day The New Corporation opened quietly in theatres in a handful of Canadian cities. Having experienced the power of the first film rolling across the country — long queues outside local art-houses — the disparity is not lost on the filmmaker.
“I really understand and respect people who say ‘I just don’t feel comfortable going out’,” he says. “To them, I say wait for it to come out online. For those who’re still going to theatres. our movie will entertain you, but also help you understand where we are right now in the larger picture of things.”
Here’s the rest of our interview in an always fun-to-read Q and A format.
Can you pinpoint the moment when the idea of a Corporation sequel hit you?
I was watching The Corporation at a 10-year anniversary event. We had champagne, we rented a theatre in downtown Vancouver, it was a big party. In the middle of the movie, I realized there was nothing to celebrate. All the issues we had dealt with in the film had gotten worse: climate change, democracy was in crisis, corporations were bigger and more powerful. Not only that, corporations themselves had responded to our arguments by rebranding themselves as the “good guys”. We needed to take another look at this.
One of my favourite aspects of both movies is the structure: come in with a thesis and dedicate the film to proving it. How did you zero-on the idea of a corporate “playbook”?
The “making a case” approach has to do with me being a lawyer and a scholar: my work is always around making arguments and defending a position. Both films are prosecutions of the corporation.
The Corporation films seem closely tied to the zeitgeist. This normally means a limited shelf life, but the movies strike me as more resilient than that.
My hope is that these projects become vessels where you can swap in whatever is happening at the moment. When you think of philosophers — Aristotle, Plato, Marx, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rosseau or John Stuart Mill — they’re all talking about what’s happening in their time, but they also try to make larger arguments about how human beings relate to each other, the kind of society and politics they create, how power is exercised, and the relationship between people and the natural world. These are the great themes. I see my work in books and in film as an intervention in those very large themes in which I use examples that are at hand.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement made their way into The New Corporation. Why did you feel the need to bring them into the movie?
Both happened after we locked the film, so we had to unlock it twice. We didn’t incorporate COVID or BLM out of the sense we were doing a current events documentary but because they were so much a product of and connected to the argument we were making about corporate capitalism.
When these events started taking place, from a practical point of view, did you panic?
A little, for a number of reasons. It changed how we could work together. I ended up creating a bubble with our editor — Peter Roeck — because we were spending so much time together. In terms of artistic panic, it came from wondering how to create a sequence around (COVID and BLM) when we couldn’t go out and shoot interviews. We ended up connecting via Zoom with the same people we had done live interviews with and followed up by asking them how the pandemic related to the topics we had been talking about before.
Checking my notes… two-thirds into The New Corporation I wrote, “this is a horror movie.” Do you agree?
It’s a particular kind of horror movie: it’s a zombie film. In your typical zombie movie you’ve a town where everybody seems happy and good. We start our movie showing the “new” corporation, people in Davos saying corporations are good now, they got the message, they’re sustainable and socially responsible. Then things start to turn: The corporation is not what you think it is. It’s not a “human being” but a zombie. Then you go through all the horror, the flesh-eating zombies ruining the community, killing people, causing destruction. And a few survivors in a basement somewhere get together and come up with a plan to resist.