Back in 2003, the documentary The Corporation explored the dominant presence of corporations in our lives and the associated repercussions. More than ten years later, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are back with an “unfortunate” sequel, (The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel) part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), after realizing the problems addressed in the first film are now “much worse.”
“Whether it's climate change, whether it's the crisis of democracy, whether it's racial and socioeconomic inequality, all of these things were much worse,” Bakan told Yahoo Canada. “Corporations were much more powerful, they had greater impunity, they were controlling more things in the world.”
“Starting around 2005 they started to present themselves as the good guys, as the solution to society's problems rather than the problem. This seemed like a really kind of messed up stew of things.”
Abbott on the other hand had a bit more hesitation about taking on the sequel. She both co-wrote and edited the first film, cutting down more than 400 hours of footage.
“For me the triggering event, however, was when Trump was elected...the veil came down at that moment,” Abbott said. “The pretence that corporations and government were acting independently just disappeared, and they were rigging the system in favour of the plutocratic class in plain view.”
An overarching theme in The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is how corporations brand themselves as socially conscious entities, looking at case studies like the 2008 economic crisis, the Davos forum, Occupy Wall Street and the climate crisis, to name just a few.
‘World changing events’ led to a scramble to the finish line
In a particularly impressive act of filmmaking, Abbott and Bakan were actually able to resume their production on two separate occasions when the film was seemingly complete, in order to include the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death.
“When COVID happened Jen and I just kind of realized that this was a world-changing event,” Bakan said. “Not only was it a world changing event but it really engaged just about all of the themes that we had addressed in the film.”
“Then George Floyd was brutally killed by police...Jen and I looked at each other and said, this is another issue that is one that we really have to build into the film, again. It engages the issues of economic injustice of racial injustice that are at the core of our analysis.”
With regards to the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, as a number of workers for companies like Amazon have come forward with concerns for their safety, the film makes the point that democratic societies need to take care of each other and corporations need to be regulated to treat workers better.
“If you were to look at a map of the COVID cases and the concentration of cases and, just say, compare Canada and the United States,” Abbott explained. “If red is the highest per capita colour, you'll see that, that red stops at the border and it actually is even in Alaska.”
“We didn't do perfectly but we did a lot better than the United States. Obviously this virus does not stop at the border so what's the difference between Canada and the United States? It's public policy...and the role of public policy in creating the common good, and how can we force corporations, compel them to do better in a situation like this pandemic.”
‘I think just about anybody...would be a better alternative than Donald Trump’
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel is relatively U.S. focused, although analysis of situations in other countries like Spain and Australia are featured as well, but the film’s directors believe the result of the upcoming U.S. election will be a key indicator of how the country and much of the world will be able to tackle the issues raised in the film.
“I think we can't really underestimate its importance,” Bakan, who was born in Michigan but relocated to Vancouver in his youth said. “I think Joe Biden, while clearly a very decent person, is not the sort of firebrand reformer that say Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would have been as presidential candidates, in terms of bringing a more social kind of approach to democracy.”
“Having said all of that, I think just about anybody in the Democratic Party, and in the Republican Party for that matter, would be a better alternative than Donald Trump.”
The film’s director went on to say that one of the most “disappointing” aspects of U.S. politics over the last decade is “the extent to which there are so many enablers in the Senate, in Congress, in state legislatures.”
“This is a very scary thing and it shows a real vulnerability in American democracy, and rightly or wrongly, as American democracy goes, much of the rest of the world goes,” Bakan said.
Abbott also highlighted that the issue of climate change is highly connected to the upcoming U.S. election.
“If Trump gets another four years and continues along the trajectory we're currently on, then we're heading for a four degree warmer, literally unliveable, uninhabitable world,” she said.
‘Take seriously your responsibilities as a citizen in a democracy’
With an “unfortunate” sequel to The Corporation now released, it begs the question about whether the filmmakers anticipate they will need to make a third film in this series in the future.
“I hope not,” Abbott said. “I think it's unlikely, but you never know.”
Although she can’t predict if another Corporation film is on the horizon, Abbott indicated that “without question” the climate crisis will get worse. Whether the world will be able to stop the worst case scenario has yet to be seen.
Bakan hopes the film urges people to “take seriously your responsibilities as a citizen in a democracy.”
“At one point in the film, one of the leading business guru’s in the world, Richard Edelman, makes the statement, ‘I'm not much of a believer in political citizenship, I believe in the power of the marketplace,’” Bakan said. “One of the things we're trying to do in the film is challenge that idea, is to say we need to believe in political citizenship, we need to believe in democratic citizenship, or we are in a whole heap of trouble.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) takes place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 19. Information on screenings and tickets at tiff.net.